Researchers: kids use the Internet; adults should get with program

JISHOU, HUNAN — Social scientists seem to have a knack for spending huge amounts of time and effort to state the obvious. The most recent example is from a study funded by the MacArthur Foundation: teens spend a lot of time online and on their cell phones communicating with others, and it’s good for them!

Dudes, like I didn’t already know.

Seriously, I respect the John D. and Catherine T. MacArtur Foundation. It funds a whole slew of wonderful pursuits, like National Public Radio, a really nice oceanside nature reserve in Florida, and many others.

Spending three years to conclude what seems to be patently obvious may seem to be time and effort misplaced, but the conclusions of the report should give us educators something to think about.

Led by Mizuko Ito of the University of California-Irvine, a team of researchers interviewed 800 teens and young adults and spent more than 5,000 hours online to investigate youth media use.

They refute the oft-cited scourge of Internet predators out to abscond with our children’s virtue. In fact, the overwhelming majority of young people use electronic media to talk with one another, or with people they know.

Despite adult fears that all this time spent texting, chatting, and such is a waste of time, the researchers concluded that young people are actually developing extant and new social connections, learning on their own, and fostering their own independence. All good stuff.

Teens with specific interests soon find each other online, and build close-knit electronic communities. These communities sometimes include adults, who become equal participants rather than authority figures, since in cyber space, “No one knows you’re a dog.”

© Peter Steiner, The New Yorker

Some young people use the Internet for self-expression in ways that would have been impossible several years ago. Facebook, MySpace and similar social-networking sites allow users (and up-and-coming garage bands) to customize their pages, peppering them with images, music and video. Other sites, like LiveJournal, WordPress.com and other blogging sites, give users a chance to write entries covering the mundane to the intensely personal, free of editorial review.

YouTube is the latest hotspot. One 19-year-old woman from California, Laci Green, became somewhat of a YouTube celebrity recently after Christian complaints about her vehement defense of atheism resulted in YouTube suspending her account for a while. Laci

Green eventually regained her YouTube access, perhaps because noted Scienceblogger PZ Myers publicized the entire fiasco on his popular blog, Pharyngula. To be on the safe side, Green also created a public MySpace page as a fallback.

Her incisive video (and written) commentaries about atheism, religion, self-image, civil rights, and other more personal issues each draw hundreds of comments from all ages from all over the world.

In their executive summary, the researchers list some implications for this surfeit of electronic expression, presenting some challenges for educators and parents.

  • Adults should facilitate young people’s engagement with digital media. Rather than proscribing and banning online activities, adults should give youngsters every opportunity to delve into the Internet’s resources, to develop the social and technical skills they will need later in life. Self-directed learning activities provide the kind of openness not available in most educational settings. The whole meme about Internet predation is overblown, so schools and parents need to loosen up restrictions. In my experience, most preteens and teens are more savvy than adults realize. They can pick out the online creeps pretty quickly.
  • In interest-driven participation, adults have an important role to play. Instead of being the authority figure, adults can instead guide or shape young people’s goals and learning curves. And in my experience, they can also learn from younger people, reversing the teacher-student role. That kind of role reversal rarely happens in the traditional classroom.
  • To stay relevant in the 21st century, education institutions need to keep pace with the rapid changes introduced by digital media. Colleges and universities generally seem to do a better job in keeping up than primary and secondary institutions, in my opinion, but they all fall short of using the Internet to its full potential. The WWW removes all physical barriers to learning, so educators should enable students to exploit resources worldwide. Primary sources are usually better than secondary or tertiary sources, after all.

Educators are way behind the times. Even in settings where they have the computer resources, teachers (many of whom can barely send an email) largely ignore the computers and the Internet. Unfortunately, it may take another generation of teachers — the current group of college students — before schools really begin to exploit the Internet to its fullest potential. Most present teachers are, alas, too stuck in their ways.

The MacArthur Foundation should now fund a study of teacher avoidance of technology. I suspect the findings would be embarrassing.

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