Kids online: Social media sites can help develop identity, study says(Read article summary)
A new study that seeks to understand how new, kid-focused online venues effect adolescence says that social media forums can promote forms of social and identity development. Those skills, the study says, can help encourage civic involvement later in life.
Christian Science Monitor
Imagine a game in which a child not only discovers, collects, creates, and/or customizes 2- and 3-dimensional art objects that s/he then shares with fellow player-creators, but also creates his/her own levels of play. Imagine the literacies players could be developing in the process of playing such a game, including social literacy, through sharing, ‚Äúliking,‚ÄĚ and reviewing each other‚Äôs creations.
Wonderfully, there‚Äôs nothing imagined about any of that. Millions of children 5- to 12-years-old are playing this game (rated ‚ÄúE‚ÄĚ for ‚ÄúEveryone‚ÄĚ), LittleBigPlanet, in 13 languages on PlayStation 3 consoles, and this is just one social-media venue profiled by a¬†study from the Joan Ganz Cooney Center¬†at Sesame Workshop in New York. There is still so little we know about preteens‚Äô use of social media, but thanks to this report ‚Äď which both pulls together the research we do have and catalogs what we still need to know ‚Äď we have some rich new insights.
The authors write that ‚Äúmany important new literacies are necessary for participating deeply in some of the best practices available in SNF,‚ÄĚ as the description of what happens in and around LittleBigPlanet shows (the authors prefer the broader term ‚Äúforums‚ÄĚ to ‚Äúsites,‚ÄĚ thus using ‚Äúsocial networking forums‚ÄĚ or SNF). ‚ÄúResearch also suggests that SNF can also promote some forms of social and identity development. Emerging SNF that sponsor sharing creative designs may provide unique opportunities for children to develop these kinds of new literacies and social practices, sometimes also called ‚Äúcitizenship.‚ÄĚ
One of the arguments the study‚Äôs authors make, thankfully, is that ‚Äúsocial networking,‚ÄĚ ‚Äúgaming,‚ÄĚ and other terms used to describe children‚Äôs experiences in and with these services, are way too narrow, and the research literature tends to silo them ‚Äď if it even allows that learning and literacy development happen in them, I would add (considering recent studies relegating children‚Äôs screen time to ‚Äúentertainment media‚ÄĚ). In LittleBigPlanet, for example, there‚Äôs gaming, media production, media-sharing, and socializing, to name just a few types of online activity ‚Äď it‚Äôs far more than a game or social network site.
Child-centric research called for
Research needs to be less prejudiced by the public discourse about teens‚Äô social media use and adult experiences with media (largely of the very different, mass-media era),¬†I have argued, and this report calls for a more child-focused approach because children are very different developmentally from teens and have very different interests: ‚ÄúChildren‚Äôs own practices and preferences need to be better accounted for in future discussions and research,‚ÄĚ they write. ‚ÄúA more child-centric approach to these issues would assist enormously in avoiding the types of assumptions and omissions identified above.‚ÄĚ Then maybe, too, as a society, we‚Äôll consider children‚Äôs rights as well as safety ‚Äď seek young people‚Äôs, not just adults‚Äô ‚Äúperspectives on questions of privacy, consent and freedom of speech, authorship and transfer of ownership, as well,‚ÄĚ they write.
Some data we do have
Here‚Äôs some of the data we do have on preteens‚Äô use of social media, according to the report: ‚ÄúChildren don‚Äôt begin to ‚Äėextend their media habits deeper into the digital realm‚Äô until sometime between the ages of 7 and 9,‚ÄĚ the Cooney Center reported in an earlier study, so ‚Äúan important shift in usage takes place at around age 8‚Ä≥; ‚Äúabout 30% of 3-to-5-year-old children use the Internet on a typical day, compared with about 50% of 6-to-9-year olds‚ÄĚ and 47% of 6-year-olds use the Internet on a typical day, compared with 67% of 8-year-olds. But there is so much more to learn as we move past the assumptions and fears that characterized the first phase of Web 2.0. ‚ÄúThe lack of substantive empirical research of their practices, concerns, and motivations precludes us from understanding what they are doing, thinking, and feeling as they engage there.‚ÄĚ
The report both identifies the key gaps in our knowledge and puts forth a research agenda. Parents and educators will also appreciate the report‚Äôs case studies of social media services for youth. Besides LittleBigPlanet, the authors profiled‚Ä¶
- Disney‚Äôs Club Penguin, with some 150 million largely 6-to-14-year-old worldwide registered users, who play in 5 languages
- Cisco‚Äôs Networking Academy on Facebook, hosting knowledge-sharing by teens and young adults in 20 countries about designing, building, troubleshooting and securing computer networks (15,575 weekly active users, with approximate 546,416 weekly total reach, and 52% of users aged 18-24 years and 5% aged 13-17 years)
- The very design-oriented educational virtual world Whyville.net with 6.9 million members (median ages 8-15; 24% male, 76% female)
- The very social computer-programming and media project-sharing site Scratch.mit.edu (median age 12; 64% male, 36% female), with 1.1+ million members working in 44 languages around the world
The last case study looks at a group rather than a venue: ‚Äúhackers and nonconformists,‚ÄĚ representing 22% of all students surveyed by the National School Boards Association and 31% of all teens ‚Äď a significant minority who especially need guidance not restriction (because they do have workarounds!). The authors report that they‚Äôre a group of heavy social media users, active content producers, and frequent SNS rule-breakers, and they also exhibit an ‚Äúextraordinary set of traditional and 21st century skills, including communication, creativity, collaboration and leadership skills and technology proficiency‚ÄĚ ‚Äď see the 2009 study ‚ÄúCookie monsters: Seeing young people‚Äôs hacking as creative practice,‚ÄĚ by Gregory Donovan and Cindi Katz for more. These are the students who may be less engaged in traditional academics,¬†but more engaged in solving real problems (a higher proportion participate in content creation than the general student population: 50% vs. 21%).
Children‚Äôs properties less rich than teens‚Äô
Not all children‚Äôs properties are as learning-rich, the Cooney report‚Äôs authors write as well. ‚ÄúEvidence is growing that many of the virtual worlds for children that are currently available are impoverished compared to those for teens and adults.‚ÄĚ The reason could well be societal fears generated by the Internet-safety discourse: ‚ÄúLiteracy scholars highlight that the greatest opportunities for literacy development occur where kids are given the most freedom for expression, but such expression is often limited (because of societal fears, etc.) on sites developed for children.
Balancing safety with children‚Äôs rights, opportunities
This report marks another much-needed turning point in the public discourse about children in the digital age. Just by gathering what we know about the youngest media users and setting an agenda for filling in the gaps, it makes a major contribution. But this modestly titled report goes further. It puts online safety in the context of children‚Äôs development, education, participation, and rights, calling for a new, balanced and evidence-based approach to the discussion of children and media. It‚Äôs time for parents and educators to take note:
‚ÄúMisrepresentation is common in media coverage of kids and SNF, especially various examples of moral panic-style reports of young people‚Äôs so-called ‚Äėdeviant‚Äô online practices,‚ÄĚ the report‚Äôs authors write. ‚ÄúIn addition to perpetuating harmful myths about kids and online social networking, such media classification also obscures important findings and compelling arguments about the roles that these activities can play in kids‚Äô lives.‚ÄĚ
The Christian Science Monitor has assembled a diverse group of the best family and parenting bloggers out there. Our contributing and guest bloggers are not employed or directed by the Monitor, and the views expressed are the bloggers' own, as is responsibility for the content of their blogs. Anne Collier blogs at¬†NetFamilyNews.