Study: Time Kids Spend Online Not Wasted After All
There have been a steady stream of worries about the dangers that Internet use could pose to children, and many have dismissed these worries as overblown parental concern. The latest group to weigh in is the MacArthur Foundation, best known for handing out the so-called “genius” awards. The Foundation has funded a sprawling set of studies that looked into how the US youth population is using the Internet, and has just released a document that ties them all together. Overall, the conclusion is that, at worst, the Internet generally enables the same old social interactions in a new medium; at its best, however, it enables them to participate in something close to a meritocracy, where their age isn’t a concern.
The new report is based on studies that have been performed over the last several years; the entire list of data sources takes up a large paragraph, but includes over 5,000 observation hours, nearly 700 interviews (both individual and focus groups), diary studies, 10,000 social networking profiles, and more. The authors take what’s termed an ethnographic approach, eschewing a controlled look at a single facet of behavior in favor of a global picture of how kids are using the Internet.
What they found is that behavior broke down into two general categories: normal social interactions, primarily pursued with other people in the same location, and interest-focused socializing, which tended to occur across wide geographical areas.
In the first case, the social interactions primarily occur with people the kids are already familiar with. “With these friendship-driven practices, youth are almost always associating with people they already know in their offline lives,” the authors wrote. “The majority of youth use new media to hang out and extend existing friendships.” Texting, e-mail, chat, and even online gaming have simply been integrated into the normal social routine. In fact, the report cites a number of cases where friends in the same room would use some sort of online service to extend the circle of people they could interact with.
For the most part, children are just as protective of this sort of communication as they are with more traditional forms. Just as they would with a phone call, kids want the parents to stay off the line when they’re socializing. Although many seem to view the emoticons and radical abbreviations used in online chat as a sign that these venues don’t fully develop social skills, the report says that most online communities have clear social boundaries that kids learn by exploring: “Youth online communication is conducted in a context of public scrutiny and structured by shared norms and a sense of reciprocity.”
In fact, online media seem to provide youth the chance to hone their communications skills; many kids described how they were able to take as much time as they needed to craft carefully ambiguous messages (often flirtatious) for posting at places like Facebook.
But parents aren’t being completely frozen out. Many kids reported using computers (though not necessarily social tools) for interactions with their parents. A number mentioned having set “family gaming” hours each week, and the more artistically inclined worked on family projects, such as editing videos of major events.
This sort of activity blurred into the second major social aspect, which is involvement in interest groups. “Online groups enable youth to connect to peers who share specialized and niche interests of various kinds, whether that is online gaming, creative writing, video editing, or other artistic endeavors,” the report notes. Since this social circle is defined by interest, membership tends to be geographically diffuse.
In this environment, adults appear to have a key role, in part because participation is often based on expertise. “On the interest-driven side,” the authors write, “we saw adult leadership in these groups as central to how standards for expertise and literacy are being defined.”
But, once those standards are set, these communities tend to judge members by them, rather than age. As such, youth are able to obtain social currency within these groups in a way they were unlikely to manage in the offline realm. As such, these groups have the potential to significantly enhance the maturation process.
If the report sees significant risks in the explosion of online communications, it’s that the technology gap may enhance all the other gaps that tend to pop up during the teen years. “A kid who is highly active online, coupled with a parent who is disengaged from these new media, presents the risk of creating an intergenerational wedge,” warn the authors. Which, of course, is just an extension of a more general warning: you should not only pay attention to what your kids are doing, you should make sure you know how they’re doing it.
By John Timmer