“Hanging Out, Messing Around, Geeking Out”: A Conversation with the Digital Youth Project (Part Three)

In his recent book, The Dumbest Generation, Mark Bauerlein writes, “In an average young person’s online experience, the senses may be stimulated and the ego touched, but vocabulary doesn’t expand, memory doesn’t improve, analytic talents don’t develop, and erudition doesn’t ensue.” What kinds of evidence did you find which might support or challenge this assertion?

Becky Herr: I don’t think that Bauerlein’s claim (as quoted here) is completely off the mark. For many young people, including some of those who we interviewed and observed in the Digital Youth Project, the Internet is a “vast wasteland” of flash games shrouded by banner ads, websites full of inaccurate information, and corporations looking to make money off young eyeballs. However, unlike Bauerlein, I don’t think this is the fault of the kids. I think it’s our fault as adults–particularly adults who are parents, educators, and media makers–for not making an effort to understand the Internet from a kid’s point of view and for preventing kids from having the time and space to mess around in ways that encourage them to learn to evaluate what they come across online.

I think what’s important to unpack with respect to Bauerlein’s claim is that his criticism is rooted in specific, class-based assumptions about media and about childhood. These are not new assumptions, nor are they new criticisms. Similar issues of media damaging young people’s hearts and minds have been levied in relation to earlier forms of media. In talking with parents and teachers about our research, I hear echoes of Bauerlein’s concerns in their complaints about students writing essays in “IM speak” or eschewing activities parents prefer (for reasons of nostalgia or cultural capital) in favor of playing video games or surfing YouTube.

Mimi Ito: It is tempting to blame the media or a new technology for social or cultural problems. But research has shown that things are much more complex than that, and using media as a scapegoat obscures some of the important underlying issues. A new technology grows out of our existing norms and practices. The fact that many youth are not part of the kind of culture that Bauerlein describes is not a problem caused just by the technology, but is much more deeply embedded in, as Becky notes, existing social and cultural distinctions. If kids are doing things online that seem unproductive or problematic, we don’t feel that the answer is to ban the media. Instead we think that it is important to look at and try to shape the underlying social issues. That may be the commercialization of online spaces, lack of connection between kids and teachers, or the fact that academic knowledge seems irrelevant to many kids. It is rarely something that is being driven by the technology alone.

We share a concern about the “participation gap” and how that may create inequalities in experience and knowledge. What obstacles did you discover that might block some young people from exploiting the full opportunities offered by these new media? What role do class differences play in shaping the way young people experience these new platforms?

Lisa Tripp: While increasingly young people of all social classes in the U.S. have opportunities to go online and use new media, the nature and quality of access still varies greatly. A lot of poor and working class youth still rely on schools, for example, as their primary source for access to the Internet and digital media production tools. Whereas interest-driven and friendship-driven genres of participation are fundamentally “kid-driven” in terms of growing out of youth interests and motivations, schools typically incorporate media into instruction in ways that are “teacher-driven” and heavily constrained by institutional and adult concerns. This can be seen in many “technology-integrated” assignments that address the standard curriculum without engaging students’ interest or curiosity. It can also be seen in school policies and rules that aim to keep out participatory media, such as by blocking social network and video sharing sites, instant messaging, etc. While young people find creative ways to use media at school towards their own interests and goals, those who rely on schools for access to new media are at a disadvantage from other kids. For them it can be a challenge to find the time, space, and resources to experiment with media in more open-ended ways, and to engage in the media practices that youth tend to find the most meaningful.

In the cases where we interviewed parents, we also saw class disparities in how parents approached computers and the Internet. For the middle class families in our study (who were also very tech savvy), parents provided significant scaffolding and encouragement of their children’s friendship and interest-driven practices with new media. In contrast, for many of the poor families in our study, the parents had little or no experience with computers (and often learned what they did know from the kids in the family). While in both cases there were opportunities for intergenerational collaboration around the computer, in the case of the middle class families young people had access to a great deal more support to pursue their own interests online. In the case of the poor families we interviewed, parents wanted their children to focus on using the computer for homework. Many had heard scare stories on the news about MySpace and were hesitant to let their children go online unsupervised. Some parents even took the modem or cable with them when they left their children home alone. This represented a well-intentioned effort to protect children from perceived online risks, but it also made it harder for the young people in these families to mobilize online opportunities. I think these examples speak to the ways that young peoples’ access to new media is determined not just by economic factors, but also social and cultural factors.

danah boyd: In my fieldwork, during the 2006-2007 school year, I started witnessing a divide in social network site usage between MySpace and Facebook. While this divide was extremely complex, it can be understood through the lens of Penny Eckert’s “jocks and burnouts.” These two social network sites became digital turf and usage reflected social categories. While many teens opted to use both sites, the division that did occur took place along lines of race and class. This may not look like a traditional participation gap as both groups were participating, but divisions in usage that reinforce dynamics like race and class require us to pause. Consider for a moment that Facebook is the “preferred” tool on most college campuses. What does it mean that some teens are already engaged with the normative collegiate tools while others are not? How does high school nonparticipation shape early collegiate life?

Your writing is sympathetic to the various ways young people “work around” constraints imposed by adults on their ability to access online social networks. How would you address the concerns of adults who imposed those restrictions in the first place?

CJ Pascoe: What I tended to see as I studied kids in urban and suburban public schools was that teens constantly tried to work around the constraints the school administration placed on their internet use. Schools blocked the students’ access to Facebook, MySpace, certain search terms and instant messaging programs. In response teens developed a sort of knowledge network in which everyone knew which kid could find the proxy servers that would allow them access to these sites (though of course none of them knew the name for proxy servers). Interestingly many of the teachers at these schools found these rules too stringent. One teacher listed off several students who were the proxy server “experts” when one of her students needed to access a forbidden site. Similarly when one of his students was writing a paper on breast cancer a teacher let the student conduct research on the teacher’s computer because the word “breast” was blocked from the network to which the students had access. In light of these restrictions it seems that adults are not an undifferentiated mass, that some find certain restrictions of teens Internet use problematic. It seems that what the more restrictive adults are afraid of is teens access to information and ability to process that sort of information as well as the fear that teens might not concentrate on the task at hand – school – if they could be hanging out on MySpace. To those adults I would say that banning information or certain sites does not prevent teen access. Instead it creates a community of mistrust. Thus adults should be working with teens on issues of media literacy, how to process the sort of information that appears on the banned sites, rather than forbidding teens to visit them.

Heather Horst: We saw parents across the socioeconomic spectrum express considerable concern about the threats and vulnerabilities their kids faced in the contemporary media ecology. Parents worried about the type of information that circulated and, given the timing of our research, the ability of sites like MySpace to be used as a way to access and exploit their kids. They also worried about multitasking and ‘wasting time’ online. In addition, because there’s fear of kids hanging out outside of the home, and their lives can often be overscheduled, young people genuinely felt that they had very little face-to-face contact with their friends. The use of Instant Messaging and online sites like MySpace, Facebook and so many others are now a part of kids everyday lives, part of peer culture. In addition, the kids who were doing the most interesting things talked about having (or finding) the time to ‘mess around’ and explore in a way that did not have ‘serious’ implications (e.g. being graded. To deny participation in this space is to fail to acknowledge the importance of sociality in kids’ lives.

danah boyd: I commend parents and teachers for being engaged and concerned, but I worry that their concerns are often based on inaccurate understandings of danger. As is well documented by researchers at the Crimes Against Children Research Center, the mythical image of the online predator is a completely inaccurate portrayal of the actual dangers youth face online. Yet, I found that fear of predators prompted many of the restrictions youth face. When restrictions are driven by fear rather than risk, we do a disservice to our youth. I think that it is very important for parents and other adults to know the data. The findings that we share in our report focus primarily on the positive opportunities for learning and social engagement, but in a different role, I have aggregated all that is known about the risks and dangers youth face. For more information on this, check out this Literature Review, a product of the Research Advisory Board of the Internet Safety Technical Task Force.

Heather Horst: In addition to knowing the data, as danah suggests, we also want to emphasize that the ‘dangers’ of online participation must also be understood within the wider context of kids’ lives. For example (and too channel CJ Pascoe), part of the reason going online is so compelling for GLBT teens is that they lack the opportunities for dating that are available to heterosexual teens in their local communities as well as the social support of other GLBT teens navigating complex relationships. At the same time, the lack of local support from peers, parents and teachers also makes many GLBT teens vulnerable to individuals who might take advantage of them online. Developing an understanding of these problems from a youth perspective may help to bridge the gap in understandings risk and vulnerabilities – blaming the medium merely distracts us from the root of these complex social problems.

A key argument throughout your book is that young people are often using new media to do things that teens historically did off-line such as spend time with friends or dating. Why have so many of these activities moved into the realm of “networked publics?” What kinds of new activities or social relations have emerged as a consequence of the affordances of new media platforms?

Christo Sims: I always feel funny writing as an authority on teenage flirting and dating as it certainly wasn’t what I went into the field intending to find. But, of course, this was a big oversight on my part since flirting and dating is so central to teenage culture in the U.S. I think these practices are a good example of how existing offline practices are moving online. The practices are the same, but being reshaped in some new ways. In terms of flirting and getting to know someone, the primary advantage of doing so online is that the entire process can be simultaneously more controlled and seemingly more casual. The asynchronous exchanges afford more time for composition. Plus there are far less cues to manage when compared to being on the phone or interacting face-to-face: tone-of-voice, posture, and a host of other non-verbal cues don’t have to be managed. Additionally, each round of messaging is, at least initially, quite brief and seemingly low key: a short little message is “no big deal.” I’ve called this “composed casualness” because often quite a bit of effort and time goes into composing that seemingly casual and lightweight message.

Another advantage of flirting online is that it doesn’t have to be done in front of a bunch of peers at school. Boys in particular mentioned how rare it was to be able to talk to a girl at school one-on-one. Girls are in groups and almost any interaction you have is witnessed. While the Internet can amplify this sense of acting in public it also affords more private communications. Messaging features on sites like Facebook and MySpace, and well as SMS on cell phones, allow teens to carry on one-on-one conversations outside earshot of friends and family. Online communications also make rejection easier, or less confrontational, during the flirting stage. Rejection is often signaled by not responding to a message. Such a passive strategy is easier for the one doing the rejection but it also allows the person being rejected to save face since they never “officially” got rejected, the conversation just stopped. In terms of dating, sites like MySpace and Facebook offer a stage for announcing and performing the relationship. My take on this is that most of the negotiations over relationship status are handled more privately, between couples (although these too might be mediated), and when they’ve agreed on an “official” status they announce it to the peer group.

CJ Pascoe: As the other team member focused on teens’ dating, romance and hanging out practices I’d like to build on what Christo is saying. Historically adults, particularly parents, have had a lot of control over teens’ social lives and the scope of the social world from which they could draw friends. New media allows teens to move beyond the institutions in which they have been historically located (schools, churches, sometimes civic groups) to create relationships and friendships of their own choosing. So in many ways making friends or sustaining friendshps in these networked publics allows teens to create friendships independent (or at least less constrained by) the institutions in which they are located because of their age.

danah boyd: Networked publics offer new opportunities for social interaction, but they are also used to replace mobility and freedoms that have been taken away. When I asked teens if they’d prefer to socialize online or offline, face-to-face encounters consistently were preferred. Yet, for many youth, such interactions were often infeasible. The reasons for why are diverse. Some teens lack transportation to meet up with friends or do not have friends who live nearby. Others have no time because their lives are heavily structured with activities or, when they do have time, their friends don’t. Many places in which adults gather do not allow youth to hang out and various laws forbid youth from gathering at certain times and in certain places. Some teens face heavy restrictions because of parental values or cultural norms. Yet, the most pervasive explanation for why youth were unable to get together with friends often came down to adult fears. All told, youth have little opportunity to gather with their friends, let alone their peers. Social network sites and other networked publics enable youth to gather in new ways, asynchronously and in different physical spaces.

Dan Perkel: In some of our case studies on creative production, we’re also seeing interesting dynamics in how kids are extending existing practices in new ways online. Networked publics provide space for people to more easily share and circulate their creations to others. We’ve seen how for both kids and adults, many people are taking existing practices of sharing photos and video and moving them online. A lot of this reflects very familiar kinds of sharing with friends and family. Posting drawings and stories online may be a different story. Here there is the opportunity to find other people who you may not know offline, who are into the same thing you are. This is the difference between friendship-driven and interest-driven kinds of sharing. So if you are creating fan fiction or drawing fan art or making fan-related movies, you may have a few others in your school, or friends you might meet at a local comic book store that share your interests. But online there are many more opportunities to share and discuss this kind of work. Moreover, there may be more opportunity to not just post this work and talk about it, but to improve and learn from others over time. These dynamics point to how the online space can provide new kinds of learning experiences that wouldn’t have otherwise been available to kids.

danah boyd is a doctoral candidate in the School of Information at the University of California, Berkeley and a Fellow at the Harvard University Law School Berkman Center for Internet and Society. Her research focuses on how American youth engage in networked publics such as MySpace, YouTube, Facebook, Xanga, etc. She is interested in how teens formulate a presentation of self and negotiate socialization in mediated contexts with invisible audiences. In addition to her research, danah works with a wide variety of companies and is an active blogger.

Becky Herr-Stephenson is an Associate Specialist at the University of California Humanities Research Institute at UC Irvine. Becky’s research interests include media literacy, teaching and learning with popular culture, and youth media production. Her dissertation, “Kids as Cultural Producers: Consumption, Literacy, and Participation,” investigates issues of access and media literacy through an ethnographic study of media production projects in two mixed-grade (sixth, seventh, and eighth) special education classes. Previously, she was a member of the research team for the Digital Youth Project and a graduate fellow at the Annenberg Center for Communication. Before beginning her graduate studies, Becky worked as a production manager for companies producing original content for the web and multimedia museum exhibits. Her current work with the DMLstudio involves a literature review of institutional efforts related to youth digital media production. Becky recently completed her PhD in Communication at the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Southern California.

Heather Horst is an Associate Project Scientist at the University of California, Irvine (UCHRI) who conducted research during the Digital Youth Project as a Postdoctoral Scholar at University of California, Berkeley. Heather is a sociocultural anthropologist by training who is interested in the materiality of place, space, and new information and communication technologies. Before joining the Digital Youth Project in 2005, she carried out research on conceptions of home among Jamaican transnational migrants, as well as issues of digital inequality, as part of a large-scale DFID-funded project titled “Information Society: Emergent Technologies and Development in the South,” which compared the relationship between ICTs and development in Ghana, India, Jamaica, and South Africa. Her coauthored book with Daniel Miller, The Cell Phone: An Anthropology of Communication (Oxford, UK, and New York: Berg, 2006), was the first ethnography of mobile phones in the developing world. Heather’s research in the Digital Youth Project integrates her interest in media and technology in domestic spaces, families in Silicon Valley, and the economic lives of kids on sites such as Neopets.

Mizuko (Mimi) Ito is a cultural anthropologist specializing in media technology use by children and youth. She holds an MA in Anthropology, a PhD in Education and a PhD in Anthropology from Stanford University. Ito has studied a wide range of digitally augmented social practices, including online gaming and social communities, the production and consumption of children’s software, play with children’s new media, mobile phone use in Japan, and an undergraduate multimedia-based curriculum. Her current work focuses on Japanese technoculture, and for the Digital Youth Project she is researching English-language fandoms surrounding Japanese popular culture.

C.J. Pascoe is a sociologist who is interested in sexuality, gender, youth, and new media. Her book on gender in high school, Dude, You’re a Fag: Masculinity and Sexuality in High School, recently received the 2008 Outstanding Book Award from the American Educational Research Association. As a researcher with the Digital Youth Project she researched the role of new media in teens’ dating and romance practices. Her project “Living Digital” examines how teenagers navigate digital technology and how new media have become a central part of contemporary teen culture with a particular focus on teens’ courtship, romance, and intimacy practices. Along with Dr. Natalie Boero she conducted a study titled “No Wannarexics Allowed,” looking at the formation of online pro-anorexia communities and focusing on gender, sexuality, and embodiment online. C.J. is currently an Assistant Professor of Sociology at The Colorado College.

Dan Perkel is a PhD candidate at UC Berkeley’s School of Information. His research explores how young people use the web and other technologies as a part of their everyday media production activities. Dan’s ongoing dissertation research investigates the mutual shaping of young people’s creative practices and the social and technical infrastructure that support them. Prior projects include explorations into the design of a collaborative storytelling environment for fifth-graders, ethnographic inquiry into an after-school media and technology program, and investigations using diary studies to capture everyday technology use. With UC Berkeley artist Greg Niemeyer and colleague Ryan Shaw, Dan helped create an art installation called Organum, which looks at collaborative game play using the human voice (and which was followed up by “Good Morning Flowers”). In a past life, Dan worked as an interface designer, product manager, and implementations director for Hive Group, whose Honeycomb software helps people make decisions through data visualization. He received his BA (2000) in Science, Technology, and Society from Stanford University, graduating Phi Beta Kappa, and his Master’s in Information Management and Systems from UC Berkeley’s School of Information in 2005.

Christo Sims is a PhD student at UC Berkeley’s School of Information. He was a member of the Digital Youth research team from 2005 until 2008. His fieldwork focused on the ways youth use new media in everyday social practices involving friends, family, and intimates. He conducted research at two sites, one in rural Northern California, the other in Brooklyn, New York. His contributions can mostly be found in the report’s chapters on Intimacy, Friendship, and Families. Christo received his Master’s degree from UC Berkeley’s School of Information in the spring of 2007, and his Bachelor’s degree from Bowdoin College in the spring of 2000.

Lisa Tripp is Assistant Professor of School Media and Youth Services, College of Information, Florida State University. Lisa received her PhD in Communication from the University of California, San Diego in 2002 and collaborated with the Digital Youth Project to study youth in Los Angeles-area middle schools and neighborhoods. Her research with the project emphasized classrooms incorporating media arts into instruction and the role of the Internet in the lives of Latino immigrant families. Before coming to FSU, Lisa was Associate Director of the USC Institute for Multimedia Literacy. She has a background in developing media education initiatives and she continues to research new media literacy and digital inclusion.