Facebook generation learning social, technical skills online, Florida State researcher says

Worried about the amount of time today’s kids spend texting, chatting, blogging, gaming and Facebook-ing? Don’t.

Rather than fear the time young people devote to technological pursuits, there are many reasons for adults to embrace and even facilitate youth engagement with digital media, according to Florida State University’s Lisa Tripp, who was a member of a team of researchers who recently completed the most extensive qualitative study ever done on youth media use in the United States.

“While many adults worry that children are wasting time online, texting or playing video games, our study found that these activities have captured teens’ attention because they provide avenues for extending social worlds, self-directed learning and independence,” she said.

Tripp, an assistant professor in the College of Information, supervised research and data collection at several Los Angeles middle schools that serve primarily low-income Latino youth to find out how the students were using digital media technology both at home and at school. Her research became a part of the Digital Youth Project, a joint effort of the University of Southern California and the University of California, Berkeley.

The three-year study was part of a $50 million project on digital and media learning funded by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation. Altogether, researchers involved in the project interviewed more than 800 children and young adults and conducted more than 5,000 hours of online observations. Tripp also is one of the co-authors of the final report on the project, which will be published by MIT Press as a book called “Hanging Out, Messing Around, Geeking Out: Living and Learning with New Media.”

Social network sites, online games, video-sharing sites and gadgets such as iPods and mobile phones — technologies that barely existed 10 years ago — are now fixtures of youth culture. The researchers found that most young people almost always associate with people they already know in their offline lives through school or sports, but cell phones, instant messaging and social network sites such as MySpace and Facebook allow them to be in nearly constant touch.

A smaller number of young people also use the online world to find information they may not have access to at school or in their local community and to connect with people who share specialized interests in activities, such as online gaming, creative writing, video editing or other artistic endeavors.

By exploring new interests and tinkering with new forms of media, young people are picking up basic social and technical skills, such as how to create a video or game or customize a MySpace page, Tripp said. Young people also can learn a lot through trial and error and from their peers and online communities.

The study found that young people’s learning with digital media is often more self-directed, with a freedom and autonomy that is less apparent than in a classroom setting. The researchers said youth respect one another’s authority online, and they are often more motivated to learn from each other than from adults.

That doesn’t mean adults should stay out of the picture. Quite the opposite, Tripp said.

“I’d like to see adults get more tech savvy and up-to-date with how to use participatory media, such as blogs, wikis, podcasting and social network sites so they can be more actively involved in what children are doing with the media but in a smarter way,” she said. “For example, adults can help create opportunities for young people to learn with media in interesting ways, and they can help teach advanced information and media literacy skills that young people need.”

Schools also need to keep pace with the rapid changes introduced by digital media to stay relevant in the 21st century, according to the researchers’ report.

Tripp is particularly interested in the so-called digital divide that separates low-income U.S. students from their more affluent peers. While increasingly young people from all social classes have opportunities to go online and use new media, the nature and quality of access still varies greatly, she said.

“For many low-income young people, it can be challenging to find time, space and resources to experiment with media and to engage in the media practices that youth tend to find the most meaningful,” she said. “Schools, libraries and after-school programs can help narrow the digital divide or ‘participation gap’ by creating opportunities for young people to experiment with media in more open-ended and self-directed ways.”