Sunday, November 1, 2009

Hanging Out, Messing Around, and Geeking Out

Many adults have a rather negative view of the younger generation's involvement with technology. We puzzle over groups of teenagers in malls walking and talking as much to their cell phones as to each other. They twitter, text, and surf the net constantly, to the point where we fear they spend as much time online as in "real" interactions. We regard most of this activity as wasted time devoid of any positive value. We blame the dependence of youth on technology for their lack of social skills, their resentment of authoritative structure, and their difficulty staying with just one task.

For adults with this dim view of youth's reliance on technology a recent British study seems to support the adults' conviction: A survey of 16 to 24 year olds found that 75% of them feel they "couldn't live" without the internet. The author of the study, Professor Michael Hulme of Lancaster University, concluded that "For young people the internet is part of the fabric of their world and does not exist in isolation from the physical world." A good part of negative adult thinking may stem from not really appreciating this integration of online and offline worlds -- to many of us they are separate, distinct, and unequal in legitimacy.

Over the past ten years or so considerable research has investigated the impact of new technology on young people's development. Most of it doesn't support the strong negative view outlined above. Some of the earliest findings were those of Don Tapscott, which he presented in a book titled Growing Up Digital: The Rise of the Net Generation. About ten years ago some of my students carefully evaluated Tapscott's data and created a Web tutorial (still available online) to present their findings. My students' conclusion, which I agreed with, was that although Tapscott was perhaps overly optimistic in his interpretations, there were indeed both positive and negative aspects of the net's influence.

More recent research has tended to confirm this balanced assessment. An important example of this is a 2008 study funded by the MacArthur Foundation as part of a large scale Digital Youth Project, which attempts to determine "... how digital technologies are changing the way young people learn, play, socialize, and participate in civic life." The report's lead author, Mizuko Ito at University of California, Irvine, summarized the findings by saying, “It might surprise parents to learn that it is not a waste of time for their teens to hang out online ... 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.”

The research revealed that today's youth uses the new technology to enhance and maintain social networks of friends and acquaintances, and also to gain knowledge and skills in self-directed learning activities. "Hanging out" with friends, for example, is an activity that all generations have participated in, but young people have simultaneously incorporated face to face interaction with various forms of electronic interaction. As the researchers noted, there are additional implications to hanging out for the younger generation because of the merging of online and offline social worlds: "Through participation in social network sites such as MySpace, Facebook, and Bebo (among others) as well as instant and text messaging, young people are constructing new social norms and forms of media literacy in networked public culture that reflect the enhanced role of media in their lives. The networked and public nature of these practices makes the “lessons” about social life (both the failures and successes) more consequential and persistent."

Another type of activity identified in the study is "messing around" with new technology. "When messing around, young people begin to take an interest in and focus on the workings and content of the technology and media themselves, tinkering, exploring, and extending their understanding. Some activities that we identify as messing around include looking around, searching for information online, and experimentation and play with gaming and digital media production."

Although adults often see this as haphazard and lacking in commitment, there are important positive outcomes identified by the study. "Whether it is creating a MySpace profile, a blog, or an online avatar, messing around involves tinkering with and exploration of new spaces of possibilities. Most of these activities are abandoned or only occasionally revisited in a lightweight way. Although some view these activities as dead-ends or a waste of time, we see them as a necessary part of self-directed exploration in order to experiment with something that might eventually become a longer-term, abiding interest in creative production. One side effect of this exploration is that youth also learn computer skills they might not have developed otherwise."

For some youth, a third activity can be extremely important because it is often ostracized by peer groups in face-to-face worlds. "Geeking out" is " intense commitment to or engagement with media or technology, often one particular media property, genre, or type of technology. Geeking out involves learning to navigate esoteric domains of knowledge and practice and participating in communities that traffic in these forms of expertise." It is important to note that although this activity often involves social interaction in online communities, the peer groups are often different from those in more friendship-oriented situations, and this can allow a young person to develop knowledge and skills that might not be highly valued by face-to-face peer groups.

There are other differences that are also important for understanding how some young people view traditional institutionalized learning. "Interest-based communities that support geeking out have important learning properties that are grounded in peer-based sharing and feedback. The mechanisms for getting input on one’s work and performance can vary from ongoing exchange on online chat and forums to more formal forms of rankings, critiques, and competition. Unlike what young people experience in school, where they are graded by a teacher in a position of authority, feedback in interest-driven groups is from peers and audiences who have a personal interest in their work and opinions. Among fellow creators and community members, the context is one of peer-based reciprocity, where participants can gain status and reputation but do not hold evaluative authority over one another."

There is much more to the findings of the MacArthur study, and I urge you to read the report. For example, I haven't dealt with the study's analysis of the negatives that face today's young people as they confront their technology-loaded lives. I'll just say that they may not be the negatives that many adults think .


PaddleDoc said...

Hard to understand the young, especially once they become teens. I agree with their use of tech and think it's natural given the nature of their social/tech environment.

What I find hard to abide is losing the here-and-now interaction with my grandkids while I walk with them or drive them somewhere and they constantly text friends. While they seem to feel this is quality time with me, I don't.

Being on the road used to be an opportunity for more intimate conversations. Not any longer. Maybe when they get to be 22 I'll get a new chance? Meanwhile I text them if I really want their attention.

DoctorMcLovin said...

The ability to be fully in the here and now is something that we older folks can help teach the young. However, I don't think we should sell them short either. I am generally more impressed by the emerging generation then "Generation X" or my own. They may be preparing to live in a bigger and flatter world.