If we heed the headlines of media accounts about how kids are using social media today, there is certainly cause for worry about how they are using the growing number of hours that they are online. According to a Kaiser Family Foundation report published in 2010, 40 percent of youth ages 8-18 spend an average of an hour a day communicating with their friends on social networking sites such as Facebook.
Similarly, Common Sense Media's recent report finds that 90 percent of American teenagers have used some form of social media -- with 75 percent currently maintaining a profile on a social networking site like Facebook or Twitter. (Interestingly, this report was published just two years after the Kaiser report and notes that 51 percent of teens visit social media sites daily -- a number that is likely to keep growing even larger as time goes on.)
There are other tangible reasons to worry about social media including incursions on privacy, compelling discussions of cyberbullying, and overt, crass marketing techniques by some corporations intent on gaining a foothold among an increasingly powerful demographic -- kids and youth.
Every concerned parent and educator in America is concerned with these issues, and has engaged in fervent discussions with youth. But can our debates help us find a good balance between the impulse to protect our children and finding ways in which social media can be harnessed for inspiration? New research from communications scholars and learning scientists suggests some specific ways that social media can promote children's learning, including their technical literacies, and important social skills, as well as key academic skills through networked participation.
- Which children are using social networking forums and what are they doing there?
The results of the report may be surprising:
- Children tend to be ignored in the big survey research that documents who is going online, how often, and what they are doing. This is partly because children present a challenging audience to reach. It is hard for scholars to gain access to young children (they usually go to parents, and it's just easier to talk to teens and young adults).
Grimes and Fields point out that we do know some important features of social network sites that can be beneficial. There are numerous opportunities for learning on these sites including: spaces for sharing creations, getting feedback on writing, collaborating, developing literacies for reading not just printed text but visual images, hyperlinked information, and finding ways to delve into the very makings of computers (i.e., computational literacy). The possibilities for using social networking forums to enhance and support children's participation in cultural and civic engagement are also extremely exciting. There is some untapped promise for social development, too -- social networking forums can provide lower risk environments that allow kids to interact with other youth that they might be intimidated to talk to in "real life."
Kids Online also calls for national investment to advance a new research agenda: to talk directly to families and educators about the changing character of young people's digital lives. The authors suggest that the current discussion of overhauling COPPA requirements on privacy and safety is overdue, as we must revisit key policy questions to figure out who is actually regulating these spaces, under what criteria, and with whose consent. We need to know more about the ways in which online social time can be rebalanced so that the hours are not dedicated to "empty calories" or even potentially dangerous activity. To gain a better sense of what is next, we need greater insight into the role that families play in promoting the regular habits that children develop during their primary years before they become active in social media.
The authors also point out that kids themselves will likely, and unpredictably, create the "next big thing" in social networks through their own participation. It is their passion we should be promoting.
The report is available on the Joan Ganz Cooney Center website.