April 8, 2012

How Kids Live and Learn Online

Researching the experiences of today’s digital natives

Worried about the amount of time your teenager spends on the Internet or with their smartphone in hand? Concerned about their development, what they’re learning, or if they're being safe? A growing body of research is documenting what it means for youth to be online as much as they are, informing educators and technology producers and, in some cases, easing parents’ concerns about the virtual environment. Leaders such as Henry Jenkins and institutions like the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation have devoted considerable attention and resources to online and digital media environments. They're highlighting the range of activities, levels of participation, and types of learning that are commonplace among today’s digital natives.

One such effort involved a three-year study of how young people are using today’s new media at home, in afterschool programs, and in other independent online settings. Led by Mizuko Ito and more than twenty-five other researchers, the study explored youth participation online, including how kids produce, share, and contribute in the digital age. When their findings were first released in 2009, Ito and her colleagues helped define what it means to be “literate” in the 21st century. Takeaways included:

  • Today’s kids are developing technical and new media skills independently, not with guidance from an adult instructor, parent, or teacher, but from their peers;
  • New media and social network sites enable kids to access knowledge independently and in the subjects that interest them; they’re able to participate in its production and contribute to a growing network of expertise and knowledge;
  • Playing online, communicating with friends and peers, and producing creative and original content helps make learning meaningful and relevant to their lives; and
  • As kids participate online and alongside their peers, they’re able to validate their own perspectives and contributions. They get recognized for their work. They’re empowered.

New Media and Levels of Participation
New media is a term that gets thrown around freely, but it's one that gets at the heart of today’s digital environment. With new media, a range of content such as text, video, and audio are combined with interactive features and social networks that encourage online communication. It's the skills and practices associated with new media that enable us to participate in the online community. For Ito and her colleagues, exploring how kids’ engage with new media was the first step to understanding how today’s youth socialize and learn. What they did in the end was categorize youth participation in three ways: hanging out, messing around, and geeking out.

“Hanging Out” – A Starting Point for Your Child’s Engagement and Learning
With social network sites, instant messaging and texting, today’s kids begin the process of constructing online identities, adapting to new social norms (social norms not all that dissimilar from life offline), and developing their media literacy skills. It’s at this stage that the enhanced role of new media in their lives becomes clear.

“Messing Around”
While hanging out serves as an introduction to online communities and interacting with new media, a next level of participation describes a stage during which kids begin to focus on how technology and media work together. Whether using the web to search for information and resources, sharing something discovered, or experimenting with their own blogs, YouTube content, or Facebook profiles, messing around gives kids a chance to tinker, explore, and expand their knowledge and interests.

“Geeking Out”
As kids get older or gain greater access to digital media tools and online resources, they quickly discover that the web offers more than an environment to connect with friends, post personal media to social networking sites, or comment on popular YouTube videos. The Internet offers all of us a near endless universe of games, information and entertainment resources, many of which allow for deep engagement that results in new and independent expertise.

Influence in the Home and in Class
It’s not easy when your child spends more time on their device than at the dinner table. And it remains a parent’s responsibility to help guide and manage a healthy digital diet. But it’s also important for parents (and educators) to recognize the value of kids’ online experiences, from the earliest stages of hanging out to the valuable skills, self worth, and motivation kids develop while messing around and geeking out.

It’s also worth remembering that most kids aren’t engaging in behaviors that are all that different from—or riskier than—those explored offline. But again, it’s up to parents and educators to model their own values and to trust that kids exhibit those in their online communication.

The research from Ito and her colleagues is only just now starting to percolate within education. That's because it reflects the dynamic nature and pace of technology—from the lightning quick saturation of smartphones to the use of touchscreen tablets and the evolving nature of online communication practices. As a result, its influence on teaching and learning is going to lag. Schools aren’t necessarily agile enough to respond, nor should they be. Technology access, stretched funding, and limited support are but a few of the obstacles.

All that said, knowing more about their screen time, how their interest and skills develop, and how it all influences your child’s sense of self and learning, well, that just might help ease some of the concern regarding those digital natives in your life.

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