A suspension of disbelief needed

By Anne Collier

Sidebar to my post, “Literacy for a digital age”

In talks he gives, media professor Henry Jenkins, often refers to the advice Peter Parker, aka Spiderman, gets from his Uncle Ben: “With great power comes great responsibility.” But Dr. Jenkins, a professor at the University of Southern California, isn’t only creating a parallel between young Spiderman’s new-found super-powers and real-world teens’ new-found social-media powers. This isn’t just about teens’ responsibilities (it’s also about their rights to freedom of expression and participation and about our responsibilities). Jenkins’s metaphor is also an invitation to us adults. Referring to the film Spiderman in this TEDx talk, Jenkins says, “In our imaginations we readily accept the idea that young people do things in the world that matter, that young people can take responsibility and change the world around them, that young people are active social agents and that young people need space to pursue those interests, and those interests need to be taken seriously.” He’s inviting us to move this out of our imaginations, take the same suspension of disbelief we take to films we go see (but one that lasts a whole lot longer) and apply it to the positive participation in which many young people are already engaged online (he gives many examples in the talk).

But, he adds, jokingly, he’s “not saying we should take a laissez faire approach and allow feral children on the Internet to be raised by the wolves of Web 2.0.” Speaking in 2009 to the Online Safety & Technology Working Group I co-chaired in Washington, Dr. Jenkins said young people “are looking for guidance often [in their use of digital media] but don’t know where to turn.” What does that mean? He says it means “watching their back,” not “looking over their shoulder.” I agree! Because he and so many scholars (and my own experience with young people) tell me that youth are for the most part making intelligent choices in social media. So, where media and technology are concerned, they need to know we have their back. Where life’s concerned, young people need guidance, and so it follows that, where life shows up in digital media, guidance is needed. What do I mean by that? I mean bringing the wisdom that we the human race have accumulated for millennia into digital spaces, interaction, collaboration, and communities. Because digital media activity and life are, especially for young people, a total mashup, or all the same thing. Put another way, we need to make sure our parenting, teaching, modeling and other forms of guidance embrace life as a whole, wherever it shows up. No more blocking social media out of our consciousness, our lives, or our schools.

Jenkins told the Working Group that we need to bring new media into classroom settings and create the conditions for youth to absorb and learn in digital-media projects and environments the kind of social and professional ethics young people have long absorbed in offline collaborations, clubs, and communities. More than two-thirds of US teens produce media now, and about a third of them have shared that media with a community that goes beyond friends and family, Jenkins said, so guidance and practice need to be provided by schools in digital media just as they have been provided by schools in traditional media for generations.

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