The new-media monsters we’ve created for our kids

In adjusting to a media environment very different from the mass-media one we grew up in, we adults have created some monsters. They’re large, intimidating “creatures” that threaten the mutually respectful parent-child and educator-student communication that young people want and deserve in this highly participatory, sometimes overwhelming new media environment.

One of the monsters is the “digital native” – the term, not the child. Coined by author Marc Prensky in 2001, the phrase has its usefulness in helping us adults grasp the major media shift we’re experiencing and embrace young people’s openness to it. But two leading new-media thinkers – Sonia Livingstone of the London School of Economics and Henry Jenkins at the University of Southern California – both have concerns about the phrase becoming too definitive. Why?

‘Digital natives’ as alien life forms

In February Dr. Livingstone said in a keynote at a University of California, San Diego, conference that all the hype around “digital natives” suggests that new media “brought into being a whole new species, a youth transformed, qualitatively distinct from anything that has gone before, an alien form whose habits it is our task to understand,” when what we need to do is think about and work with children in the context of their full life – home, school, friends, media and cultural environments, etc. – in order “to understand what young people do online,” not the other way around.

Dr. Jenkins recently wrote: “As a society, we have spent too much time focused on what media are doing to young people and not enough time asking what young people are doing with media…. Despite a tendency to talk of ‘digital natives,’ these young people are not born understanding how to navigate cyberspace and they don’t always know the right thing to do as they confront situations that were not part of the childhood world of their parents or educators. Yes, they have acquired great power, yet they … don’t know how to exercise responsibility in this unfamiliar environment.”

By viewing kids as alien life forms called “digital natives,” we send the message that children don’t need tech-, media-, and social-literacy training to navigate the ocean of information at their fingertips 24/7 and the tricky sometimes harsh waters of digital-media-informed adolescent social development. And by focusing on technology instead of children, we create daunting, new-sounding things to fear like “cyberbullying,” directing attention away from the good work already being done against bullying as well as cyberbullying by changing school cultures and teaching and modeling empathy, ethics, and citizenship (at school and online). [This is not to say that cyberbullying isn't a problem, but we need to address it calmly and thoughtfully, not fearfully, and in context. There's a lot of overlap between bullying online and what happens offline at school. And for context, see this in MSNBC.com about research showing that the number of youth aged 2-17 who reported being bullied actually declined between 2003 and '08.]

Let’s do some social norming by focusing on the social norming that actually does change behavior in positive ways! (For info on social norming, see the last three Related Links below.)

The paralyzing remove-all-risk monster

Another monster we’ve created: the “ideal” of a risk-free childhood or media experience. The Internet has become for youth “an escape from [the] offline constraints,” as Livingstone put it, that we have put on our children out of fear for their safety in public spaces. “We are raising our children in captivity,” UK psychologist and Net-safety expert Tanya Byron famously stated. And yet risk can’t be deleted online or offline (and experts tell us risk-assessment is a primary task of adolescence). In her research, Livingstone has found that “the online opportunities and risks, as adults define them, go hand in hand – the more children experience of the opportunities, the more also of the risks…. Children do not draw the line where adults do, so these are often the same activity: making new friends or meeting up with strangers; exploring your sexual identity or exposing your private self; remixing new creative forms or plagiarising/breaking copyright.”

That’s unnerving for parents, but this is even more so: The risk-removal monster eats away at children’s healthy development. “To expand their experience and expertise, to build confidence and resilience, children must push against adult-imposed boundaries: identity, intimacy, privacy and vulnerability are all closely related,” Livingstone said. So instead of trying to remove risk, we need to allow our children to figure out how to negotiate it – at home and school, in the very media environments (wikis, social sites, Google docs) where they’re already presented with those risks and opportunities, as well as the real-world ones.

Livingstone suggests to the authors of Hanging Out, Messing Around, and Geeking Out: Kids Living and Learning with New Media (MIT Press, 2009) that, after “geeking out,” they tack on a fourth category addressing youth risk assessment: “Playing with Fire.” Why? She says “children are not weirdly motivated to take risks online; they are motivated to explore precisely what adults have forbidden, to experiment with the experiences they know to lie just ahead of them, to take calculated risks to test themselves and show off to others.” Checking out sites like ChatRoulette (see this) is “not so very new,” Livingstone says, when you think back to the time when “young teenage girls told their parents they are staying at a friend’s house but then dare each other to sleep in the street or park instead. Now they play with fire online. It’s evident even from their screen names – Lolita, sxcbabe, kissmequick.”

The extremely busy adult-blinding monster

A third very large monster is our own preoccupation with adult life, perspectives, and goals. We have a very hard time seeing past it to understand and respond appropriately to children’s best interests. For example, Livingstone asked the question (only lightly considered at the end of a recent piece in The Economist about “the Net generation”) of whether the disappointing apparently shallow civic engagement of youth online is because of a lack of interest on their part OR a boring, top-down, adult approach to engaging them online – see p. 9 of her keynote for examples (an example I can think of is the way we impose our mass-media perspective on their media use – see this on the Kaiser Family Foundation study released in January).

What could guide us around and past this hyperactive monster is the approach to youth taken by the researchers who contributed to Hanging Out, Messing Around, and Geeking Out. In the book’s introduction, they write: “Adults often view children in a forward-looking way, in terms of ‘ages and stages’ of what they will become rather than as complete beings ‘with ongoing lives, needs, and desires’ … [and] as active, creative social agents who produce their own unique children’s cultures while simultaneously contributing to the production of adult societies.”

Viewing youth as active agents and stakeholders in their own, their peers’, and their communities’ well-being (in or out of media, online and offline) will not only defeat the adult-blinding monster, it’s likely also to increase adult-child communication in a media environment where respectful, informed communication is protective. How so? It opens thought to other perspectives and unconsidered solutions, making it less likely that kids will go “underground” for fear of ignorant overreaction, and encourages youth who are being victimized to seek help from adults they can trust, to name only two highly desirable outcomes. Clarity and communication are more important than ever in an unregulated, user-driven, and uncharted new media environment in which children are children so much more than they’re “digital natives.”

Related links

* On parenting these days: “Parenting & the digital drama overload”
* On the media sea change we adults are adapting to: “Youth, adults & the social-media shift”
* That Economist piece: “The net generation, unplugged,” The Economist found some other scholars who find mass generalizations like “digital natives” unhelpful, including Kansas State professor Mike Wesch, who says that “many of his incoming students have only a superficial familiarity with the digital tools they use regularly…. Only a small fraction of students may count as true digital natives…. The rest are no better or worse at using technology than the rest of the population.”
*Let’s not create a cyberbullying panic,” by ConnectSafely co-director Larry Magid at CNET
* “Major obstacle to universal broadband & what can help”
* “Social norming: So key to online safety”
* “Clicks & Cliques, Part 2: Whole-school response needed”


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