Putting Youth Social Networking Activities and Safety in Perspective

by on November 20, 2008 · 17 comments

I’ve spent a lot of time in recent years trying to debunk various myths about online child safety or at least put those risks into perspective. Too often, press reports and public policy initiatives are being driven by myths, irrational fears, or unjustified “moral panics.”  Luckily, the New York Times reports that there’s another study out this week that helps us see things in a more level-headed light. This new MacArthur Foundation report is entitled Living and Learning with New Media: Summary of Findings from the Digital Youth Project. This white paper is a summary of three years of research on kids’ informal learning with digital media. The survey incorporates the insights from 800 youth and young adults and over 5000 hours of online observations. The information will eventually be contained in a book from MIT Press (“Hanging Out, Messing Around, Geeking Out: Living and Learning with New Media.”)

From the summary of the study on the MacArthur website:

“It might surprise parents to learn that it is not a waste of time for their teens to hang out online,” said Mizuko Ito, University of California, Irvine researcher and the report’s lead author. “There are myths about kids spending time online – that it is dangerous or making them lazy. But 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.”

Importantly, regarding the concerns many parents and policymakers have about online predation, Ms. Ito told the New York Times that, “Those concerns about predators and stranger danger have been overblown.” “There’s been some confusion about what kids are actually doing online. Mostly, they’re socializing with their friends, people they’ve met at school or camp or sports.”

In the report, according to the summary, the researchers “identified two distinctive categories of teen engagement with digital media: friendship-driven and interest-driven. While friendship-driven participation centered on “hanging out” with existing friends, interest-driven participation involved accessing online information and communities that may not be present in the local peer group.” The specific findings of the study are as follows:

  • There is a generation gap in how youth and adults view the value of online activity.
    • Adults tend to be in the dark about what youth are doing online, and often view online activity as risky or an unproductive distraction.
    • Youth understand the social value of online activity and are generally highly motivated to participate.
  • Youth are navigating complex social and technical worlds by participating online.
    • Young people are learning basic social and technical skills that they need to fully participate in contemporary society.
    • The social worlds that youth are negotiating have new kinds of dynamics, as online socializing is permanent, public, involves managing elaborate networks of friends and acquaintances, and is always on.
  • Young people are motivated to learn from their peers online.
    • The Internet provides new kinds of public spaces for youth to interact and receive feedback from one another.
    • Young people respect each other’s authority online and are more motivated to learn from each other than from adults.
  • Most youth are not taking full advantage of the learning opportunities of the Internet.
    • Most youth use the Internet socially, but other learning opportunities exist.
    • Youth can connect with people in different locations and of different ages who share their interests, making it possible to pursue interests that might not be popular or valued with their local peer groups.
    • “Geeked-out” learning opportunities are abundant – subjects like astronomy, creative writing, and foreign languages.

These findings are consistent with the much of the existing research already out there about online youth behavior and Internet interactions. As I have mentioned here before, over the past year, I have been serving on the Internet Safety Technical Task Force (ISTTF), which was formed following a January 2008 agreement between social networking website operator MySpace.com and 49 state Attorneys General. As part their “Joint Statement on Key Principles of Social Networking Safety,” MySpace promised the AGs it would expand online safety tools, improve education efforts, and expand its cooperation with law enforcement. Importantly, they also agreed to create the ISTTF to study online safety issues and technologies.

The Berkman Center for Internet & Society at Harvard Law School was tapped to run the ISTTF, and the Task Force included a wide diversity of child safety groups, non-profit organization, and Internet companies. During a session the Task Force held in Washington, DC on April 30th, we heard from several of the nation’s top researchers in the field of online child safety. The presentations were quite enlightening and the videos of the sessions — as well as supporting materials — have all been posted on a special Berkman Center website. I just wanted to share all of those links with you here so that you have access to these wonderful materials. As you will see, they tell the same story the new MacArthur report does: Almost everything the press and policymakers have told us about online child actions and safety has been wrong.

Anyway, read (or watch) for yourself and decide. (P.S. When the final ISTTF report comes out later this year, it will include a massive compendium of all the relevant surveys and academic research done in this field. It will be the definitive treatment of the issue. An early draft is online here. I will post the final link here once the Task Force wraps up.)


April 30, 2008 – ISTTF Child Online Safety Expert Panel

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