Parents often fear that their kids are wasting their time clicking around the web. But a new study on teen use of online media commissioned by the MacArthur Foundation found that “America’s youth are developing important social and technical skills online – often in ways adults do not understand or value.”
The most extensive U.S. study on teens and their use of digital media was conducted over a three-year period by 28 researchers and collaborators at the University of Southern California and the University of California, Berkeley. They interviewed over 800 young people and their parents, both one-on-one and in focus groups; spent over 5000 hours observing teens on sites such as MySpace, Facebook, YouTube, and other networked communities; and conducted diary studies to document how, and to what end, young people engage with digital media.
“It might surprise parents to learn that it is not a waste of time for their teens to hang out online,” said Mizuko Ito, University of California, Irvine researcher and the report’s lead author. “There are myths about kids spending time online – that it is dangerous or making them lazy. But we found that spending time online is essential for young people to pick up the social and technical skills they need to be competent citizens in the digital age.”
The study found that there were two primary categories of online activity, “friendship-driven” and “interest-driven.” “While friendship-driven participation centered on ‘hanging out’ with existing friends, interest-driven participation involved accessing online information and communities that may not be present in the local peer group….Youth are navigating complex social and technical worlds by participating online.” But, the study concluded, they are not taking full advantage of opportunities to go beyond their known social connections to reach out to new contacts and educational opportunities.
I agree that these skills are important. But I worry that we are ignoring some other skills children and teens also need. No matter how wired we become, in-person social interaction (call it analog if you must), from polite conversation to thank-you notes, will always be indispensable skills, as will research that can only be conducted off-line and the ability to write complete and grammatical sentences. The online world is an important one, but so is RL.
Thanks to my dad (and BFF), Newton Minow, for sharing this study with me.