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Monday, June 09, 2008

How teens use social network sites: Clear insights

For some of the clearest, most significant insights yet into how young people use digital media, consider watching footage from "From MySpace to Hip Hop: New Media In the Everyday Lives of Youth," a forum recently held at Stanford University. Hundreds of hours of observation and interviews with young people around the US by more than 20 researchers are represented in the presentations. They're on the second video in the group, introduced by Mimi Ito, one of the principal investigators of the Digital Youth project. Their work is funded by the MacArthur Foundation. Try to watch all the way through to Ito's meaty summary at the end of the second video.

Of particular interest to parents concerned about teen social networkers' safety are findings by C.J. Pascoe mentioned by Dr. Ito, for example that: "Contrary to common fears, flirting and dating are almost always initiated offline in the traditional settings where teens get together and extended online. Her work clearly shows there's a strong social norm among teens that the online space isn't a place to find new romantic partners, but a place to deepen and explore existing offline relationships." Exceptions: marginalized teens "whose romantic partners are restricted for cultural or religious reasons" and gay and lesbian teens (the latter are "not reaching out online for random social encounters but using the expanded possibilities online selectively to overcome limitations they're facing" in their offline social networks); and the very small percentage of teens most at risk of sexual exploitation (see "Profile of a teen online victim"). You'll probably appreciate too, as I did: Heather Horst's findings on teen use of social sites and digital meeting within the context of the family; Ito's comments on the two forms of teen social networking, friendship-driven and interest-driven; danah boyd's insights into the friendship-driven side and Dilan Mahendran's fascinating examples of interest-driven, collaborative digital media making. They all indicate that there is a growing intelligence among teen social media producers about audience: "What they make is inextricably linked to who they make it for and with. They're making media for niche networked publics, not the undifferentiated public of mass media."

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