The Digital Youth Project, funded by the MacArthur Foundation, released their results yesterday. I am finding the coverage by media such as The New York Times and The San Jose Mercury News to be short on detail and long on anecdote [typical headline: It is OK for kids to be online]. SO if you want a quick review of what is going on with this research, the bottomline is: most of the popular ideas adults have (oh, and the media that promote them) about teen use of the internet are wrong.
The media release from the Foundation notes the significant findings:
There is a generation gap in how youth and adults view the value of online activity.
- Adults tend to be in the dark about what youth are doing online, and often view online activity as risky or an unproductive distraction.
- Youth understand the social value of online activity and are generally highly motivated to participate.
Youth are navigating complex social and technical worlds by participating online.
- Young people are learning basic social and technical skills that they need to fully participate in contemporary society.
- The social worlds that youth are negotiating have new kinds of dynamics, as online socializing is permanent, public, involves managing elaborate networks of friends and acquaintances, and is always on.
Young people are motivated to learn from their peers online.
- The Internet provides new kinds of public spaces for youth to interact and receive feedback from one another.
- Young people respect each other’s authority online and are more motivated to learn from each other than from adults.
Most youth are not taking full advantage of the learning opportunities of the Internet.
- Most youth use the Internet socially, but other learning opportunities exist.
- Youth can connect with people in different locations and of different ages who share their interests, making it possible to pursue interests that might not be popular or valued with their local peer groups.
- “Geeked-out” learning opportunities are abundant – subjects like astronomy, creative writing, and foreign languages.
In the 2-page research brief of the study [pdf], the authors draw these implications from their work:
Adults should facilitate young people’s engagement with digital media. Contrary to adult perceptions, while hanging out online, youth are picking up basic social and technical skills they need to fully participate in contemporary society. Erecting barriers to participation deprives teens of access to these forms of learning.
Given the diversity of digital media, it is problematic to develop a standardized set of benchmarks against which to measure young people’s technical and new media literacy. For example, whereas friendship-driven activities center upon peer culture, adult participation is more welcome in interest-driven ones.
In interest-driven participation, adults have an important role to play. Youth using new media often learn from their peers, not teachers or adults. Yet adults can still have tremendous influence in setting learning goals, particularly on the interest-driven side where adult hobbyists function as role models and more experienced peers.
To stay relevant in the 21st century, education institutions need to keep pace with the rapid changes introduced by digital media. Youths’ participation in this networked world suggests new ways of thinking about the role of education.
What I see as the main takeaway for social network strategy with this age group is this:
The researchers identified two distinctive categories of teen engagement with digital media: 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.
I find that most organizations that start dreaming about using new media to reach youth focus on the friendship-driven side of the equation - taking an interest in how to 'reach' or 'engage' individuals on social network sites by making pop culture appeals and associations (try to be a friend). The other option that this research clearly points to is focusing on the specialized knowledge networks and hobby groups that have social objects around which teens aggregate (a much more important idea for social marketers than simply 'creating more products' that seems to be the new mantra for some. Chick through that last link for some thoughtful ideas on new marketing by Hugh MacLeod). The opportunity with these types of networks is that the participation of adults as 'experienced peers,' not experts, is welcomed.