Real life found in youngsters' digitized universe

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Chill out, parents: your podcasting, Wii-gaming, YouTube-uploading children are not becoming socially awkward, violence-prone loners, but are actually busy learning critical developmental, social and educational skills -- in ways you may not appreciate or understand.

A major new study released today finds that not only are teens using the Internet, texting, instant messaging and cell phones to extend friendships with people they already know offline, but they're using digital technology -- gaming, creative writing, video editing -- to learn, promote themselves and distribute their work to online audiences.

This latest piece of good news about teens and computers comes courtesy of the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, whose three-year study examines how computers affect the everyday lives of 800 young people in middle school and high school -- their peer relationships, family dynamics, community institutions and broader networks of technology and consumer culture.

"It might surprise parents to learn that it is not a waste of time for their teens to hang out online," said Mizuko Ito, a University of California, Irvine, researcher and the report's lead author. "There are myths about kids spending time online -- that it is dangerous or making them lazy. But we found that spending time online is essential for young people to pick up the social and technical skills they need to be competent citizens in the digital age."

Today's study is the latest offering since the foundation launched its five-year, $50 million digital media and learning initiative in 2006. An earlier MacArthur study released in September in collaboration with the Pew Internet and American Life Project found that video games don't create loners prone to violence, but rather build civic and political engagement.

It's not all rosy, Ms. Ito said, noting the presence of "a generation gap in how adults and kids view the value of online participation. It's a definite source of tension at home and at school. Instead of trying to understand the value of online activity, what we're seeing are parents setting rules and schools banning particular sites across the board."

The report's findings would hardly shock Nick Streiff, a self-possessed 12-year-old who heads straight for his computer the minute he gets home from school, while his mother Suzanne, 51, keeps a watchful, wary eye.

"The first thing I do is go on my YouTube account," said Nick, a seventh-grader at Hampton Middle School who says he's been using computers since he was 4.

"I like to check up on it and make sure everything is OK, and if my friends have posted any new videos. And sometimes I post my own, that I make just for my own fun.

"Oh, and I use it for homework, too. I just type a question on Google and wait for an answer."

Robbi Ann Webb, an 11-year-old student at Pittsburgh Weil Elementary School in the Hill District, also makes a beeline for a computer after school -- but not at her house. Her family doesn't own a computer.

Instead, she heads over to the Carnegie Library branch on Centre Avenue. Its computers allow her to log onto her much-prized MySpace account.

"We get on MySpace, we check our e-mails, our messages," said Robbi Ann. "It's a lot more fun than sitting around at home."

The particularly public nature of MySpace and other social networking sites makes it easier for shy people, she added. "It's good for them, because shy people don't like to talk."

Or, to put it more formally, young people like to "browse other people's updates to get a sense of the status of others without having to engage in direct communication," the MacArthur study notes. In fact, such network profiles can signal the intensity of a relationship "through both textual and visual representations."

That's exactly the problem, said Lowell Monke, an associate professor of education at Wittenberg University in Ohio.

On Mr. Monke's campus and elsewhere, "you can see a student walk along, glued to a cell phone, without making eye contact with another soul. What does it mean when all this prodigious social interaction takes place without any involvement by body language? How do kids learn to pick up on non-verbal cues to understand what's really going in a situation with other people?"

Throughout history, though, there have been "moral panics" over new technology as a perceived threat to social cohesion, noted Teresa Foley, a Squirrel Hill-based media literacy consultant.

"It was the same with the introduction of telephones," said Ms. Foley, who also works at Carnegie Mellon University's Studio for Creative Inquiry, a center for experimental and interdisciplinary arts.

The lesson is, if you can't beat them, join them, as the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh has learned . On Tuesday afternoon, it hosted "Get Your Game On," at the Hill District branch, a once-a-month, after-school program that offers state-of-the-art video games using Nintendo Wii and PlayStation2 gaming systems.

"There's a lot of socialization that's involved in a gaming program," said Ian Eberhardt, who was overseeing the program at the Hill District branch. "They talk about the game, they help, they comment on each other's game. And it gets them coming into the library, and generates interest in our programs and services."

Nonetheless, parents like Susanne Streiff remain worried.

"I think kids are spending too much time in front of a computer screen, but times have changed."

Mrs. Streiff likes it best when, after dinner, she heads out of the kitchen, past the dining room -- which has been pretty much transformed into the family's computer center -- into the living room with her knitting.

"Nick will come in and we'll sit there and talk, or he'll read a book. It's nice," she said. "I guess I have to enjoy it while I can."


Mackenzie Carpenter can be reached at mcarpenter@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1949.


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