Has Digital Media Changed American Youth?
Photo by smileham
3.1.10 | The absence of adults from online spaces leaves young people to shape their own experiences online—with some surprising, and at times concerning, effects. This was one of the conclusions reached by a group of researchers who gathered last December at the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation in Princeton to discuss the ways that digital media may be reshaping young people’s lives.
The MacArthur Foundation’s Digital Media and Learning Initiative sponsored the day-long event, which gave researchers from a variety of disciplines the chance to share their research and reflections on the changes over time in youth’s interests, experiences and development that appear to be associated with their digital media practices.
The full report of the convening is available here.
Perhaps the most intriguing outcome of the meeting was the realization that despite our different disciplinary backgrounds and research agendas, we’ve arrived at many of the same conclusions regarding the potentials and perils associated with young people’s digital media activities.
We were each able to cite evidence from our respective research projects indicating that today’s youth, despite having more information at their fingertips than any previous generation, actually seem to be paying less attention to news and politics.
A recent survey of college students conducted by Diane Dean of Illinois State University and Arthur Levine of the Woodrow Wilson Foundation, for instance, found that more than 75 percent of respondents were not familiar with the name of former Treasury Secretary Henry Paulsen, and 83 percent were not familiar with Chinese leader Hu Jintao, whereas only 8 percent were not familiar with Miley Cyrus and 10 percent couldn’t identify the singer Pink.
We also discussed the fact that youth civic participation does not seem to have increased, despite the Internet’s ability to connect like-minded people and support the easy formation of issue-oriented groups. While it is true that recent presidential elections have seen an increase in voting among young adults, Paul Starr, professor of sociology at Princeton University, believes that this presidential level increase is not translating to an increase in voting in elections at state and local levels.
Heather Horst of the University of California at Irvine shared findings from the Digital Youth Project, led by Mimi Ito, that concluded only around 10 percent of the youth studied engaged in interest-driven activities, such as fan fiction or multiplayer role-playing games. Interest-driven activities often bring together youth and adults of various ages who share a common interest. While some scholars believe that engagement in such forms of participatory culture can eventually lead to engagement in participatory democracy, the researchers gathered at the Princeton convening acknowledged that the likelihood of this transition is far from clear.
The vast majority of young people engage in friendship-driven activities online, such as “hanging out” with their friends on social networking sites like Facebook and MySpace. Adult supports are largely absent from these types of online spaces. Consequently, youth are left alone to shape their own norms of behavior, such as how much and what type of information to share about themselves online and what is and isn’t okay to say to and about other people.
On the one hand, online spaces like Facebook and MySpace can be empowering for youth; they are in control in these spaces and free to express and explore their identities however they please. Yet, there is the danger that without adult guidance, some youth may be unable to distinguish the boundary between identity play and identity deception. They may also fail to consider the long-term consequences of sharing personal information about themselves and other people, information that, once posted online, creates an online record that is hard to erase.
We agreed that youth would likely benefit from greater support (both from adult and peer mentors) in helping them make responsible decisions online. With some exceptions, notably Common Sense Media, educators and parents have been hesitant to engage youth in conversations about their online activities beyond warning them of online predators.
This hesitation has created a vacuum that corporations like Google and News Corp have been only too happy to fill. As a result, to this point corporate entities have played a greater role in shaping youth’s online behavior than have parents and teachers.
Toward the end of the meeting, Howard Gardner of the GoodPlay Project asked participants to consider the policy recommendations implied by our combined research results. We discussed the merits of creating partnerships among different constituencies, such as corporations, educators, parents and researchers; providing youth with adult and peer supports to help guide them in their online activities; and lowering the age at which media literacy and digital ethics are introduced into the school curriculum.
At the same time, we all recognized the need for additional research to support and extend such recommendations, such as empirical research that explores the connection between participatory culture and participatory democracy. Further research will allow us to identify those aspects of youth’s digital media practices that follow common historical patterns of moral panic and those aspects that represent a true historical turning point.
In the case of the former, we can look to history for insight and guidance. In the case of the latter, however, we will need to invent new strategies for supporting youth development in this digital era.
Katie Davis is an advanced doctoral student in the Human Development and Education Program at Harvard Graduate School of Education where she works as a project specialist with Project Zero. For more on her work see Spotlight’s Growth Through Blogging.
More information on past convenings of researchers in digital media and learning is available at the Woodrow Wilson Foundation.
Leave a comment
Comments are moderated to ensure topic relevance and generally will be posted quickly.