Is time spent online wasted?

A 3 year long project by American researchers exploring how kids use digital media in their everyday lives has been published as the “Digital Youth Project“.

The “Kids’ Informal Learning with Digital Media: An Ethnographic Investigation of Innovative Knowledge Cultures” is a three-year collaborative project funded by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation. It has been carried out by researchers at the University of Southern California and University of California, Berkeley.

The team of researchers interviewed over 800 young people and conducted over 5000 hours of online observations as part of one of the most extensive studies into youth media use in the USA. The aim of the Digital Youth Project was to provide an “ethnographical view of how children use social media to socialise, learn and relax”.

The researchers explain why young people find these activities compelling and important; the digital world is creating new opportunities for young people to come to grips with social norms, explore their interests, develop key technical skills, and experiment with self-expression. These activities have captured young people’s attention because they provide ways to extend their social worlds, self-directed learning, and their independence. Researchers found that social networking, video-sharing sites, online gaming; gadgets such as iPods and mobile phones are now key fixtures of today’s youth culture. It shows that today’s youth may be coming of age and struggling for autonomy and identity amid new worlds for communication, friendship, play, and self-expression

Today’s young people are “always on,” they can be in constant contact with friends through ways such as instant messaging, mobile phones, social networking sites . They are developing key skills as they are creating and navigating through new forms of expression and rules for social behaviour. By exploring these new interests, and by “messing around” with media, they are able to gain various forms of technical and media literacy. Through this young people are gaining media skills, such as how to create a video or game, or customize their MySpace page. They then share their ‘creations’ and can receive feedback from others online. The digital world lowers barriers to self-directed learning due to its capacity, immediacy and breadth of information.

“They are learning the technological skills and literacy needed for the contemporary world,” said the report’s author, Dr Mimi Ito.  “They are learning how to communicate online, craft a public identity, create a home page, post links. All these things were regarded as sophisticated 10 years ago but young people today take them for granted”

The report argues against the stereotypical view held by many parents and teachers that internet activity is a waste of time. Contrary to some typical adult perceptions, while hanging out online, young people are picking up basic social and technical skills which they need to fully participate in society. Creating barriers for young people’s ability to participate deprives them, of access to these forms of learning – Adults should be facilitating young people’s engagement with digital media. “While most parents know very little about what their kids are doing online, they are struggling to give real guidance and help. At the more social ‘hanging out’ layer, young people don’t want their parents or teachers on their MySpace or Facebook page. But in the interest-driven side, there is a more productive role for parents and teachers to play that will help them connect with kids and their lives” says Dr Ito

The researchers also discovered a “digital divide” between those young people who have access to the web and those who do not. “The quality of access is what matters for some kids who have to just rely on the library and school to go online. It is often limited, has blocks put on access to certain sites and is only available when these institutions are open” said Dr Ito.

The MacArthur Foundation’s education director, Connie Yowell, concluded that the work creates a new way to look at how young people are being taught. “Learning today is becoming increasingly peer-based and networked, and this is important to consider as we begin to re-imagine education in the 21st century”   


Should the suggestions from this report be taken into consideration and should we be changing how we use technology both within the classroom and at home? If such valuable skills are being acquired by today’s young people, should we be harnessing this enthusiasm and using it positively?  

However to truly embrace this idea it would mean removing blocks that restrict young peoples access to such sites and that may well be a risk that some would not be willing to take as yet. Are there alternatives to this idea? Is there a “middle ground” where we can feel reassured that young people are safe online and learning and where they can feel independent and supported?

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