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What we know & don’t know about kids’ online socializing: Key study

Imagine a game in which a child not only discovers, collects, creates, and/or customizes 2- and 3-dimensional art objects that s/he then shares with fellow player-creators, but also creates his/her own levels of play. Imagine the literacies players could be developing in the process of playing such a game, including social literacy, through sharing, “liking,” and reviewing each other’s creations.

Cooney Center's little robot graphicWonderfully, there’s nothing imagined about any of that. Millions of children aged 5-12 are playing this game (rated “E” for “Everyone”), LittleBigPlanet, in 13 languages on PlayStation 3 consoles, and this is just one social-media venue profiled by a study from the Joan Ganz Cooney Center at Sesame Workshop in New York. There is still so little we know about preteens’ use of social media, but thanks to this report – which both pulls together the research we do have and catalogs what we still need to know – we have some rich new insights.

The authors write that “many important new literacies are necessary for participating deeply in some of the best practices available in SNF,” as the description of what happens in and around LittleBigPlanet shows (the authors prefer the broader term “forums” to “sites,” thus using “social networking forums” or SNF). “Research also suggests that SNF can also promote some forms of social and identity development. Emerging SNF that sponsor sharing creative designs may provide unique opportunities for children to develop these kinds of new literacies and social practices, sometimes also called “citizenship.”

One of the arguments the study’s authors make, thankfully, is that “social networking,” “gaming,” and other terms used to describe children’s experiences in and with these services, are way too narrow, and the research literature tends to silo them – if it even allows that learning and literacy development happen in them, I would add (considering recent studies relegating children’s screen time to “entertainment media” – see this). In LittleBigPlanet, for example, there’s gaming, media production, media-sharing, and socializing, to name just a few types of online activity – it’s far more than a game or social network site.

Child-centric research called for

Research needs to be less prejudiced by the public discourse about teens’ social media use and adult experiences with media (largely of the very different, mass-media era), I have argued, and this report calls for a more child-focused approach because children are very different developmentally from teens and have very different interests: “Children’s own practices and preferences need to be better accounted for in future discussions and research,” they write. “A more child-centric approach to these issues would assist enormously in avoiding the types of assumptions and omissions identified above.” Then maybe, too, as a society, we’ll consider children’s rights as well as safety – seek young people’s, not just adults’ “perspectives on questions of privacy, consent and freedom of speech, authorship and transfer of ownership, as well,” they write.

Some data we do have

Here’s some of the data we do have on preteens’ use of social media, according to the report: “Children don’t begin to ‘extend their media habits deeper into the digital realm’ until sometime between the ages of 7 and 9,” the Cooney Center reported in an earlier study, so “an important shift in usage takes place at around age 8″; “about 30% of 3-to-5-year-old children use the Internet on a typical day, compared with about 50% of 6-to-9-year olds” and 47% of 6-year-olds use the Internet on a typical day, compared with 67% of 8-year-olds. But there is so much more to learn as we move past the assumptions and fears that characterized the first phase of Web 2.0. “The lack of substantive empirical research of their practices, concerns, and motivations precludes us from understanding what they are doing, thinking, and feeling as they engage there.”

Learning-rich SNFs

The report both identifies the key gaps in our knowledge and puts forth a research agenda. Parents and educators will also appreciate the report’s case studies of social media services for youth. Besides LittleBigPlanet, the authors profiled…

  • Disney’s Club Penguin, with some 150 million largely 6-to-14-year-old worldwide registered users, who play in 5 languages
  • Cisco’s Networking Academy on Facebook, hosting knowledge-sharing by teens and young adults in 20 countries about designing, building, troubleshooting and securing computer networks (15,575 weekly active users, with approximate 546,416 weekly total reach, and 52% of users aged 18-24 years and 5% aged 13-17 years)
  • The very design-oriented educational virtual world Whyville.net with 6.9 million members (median ages 8-15; 24% male, 76% female)
  • The very social computer-programming and media project-sharing site Scratch.mit.edu (median age 12; 64% male, 36% female), with 1.1+ million members working in 44 languages around the world

The last case study looks at a group rather than a venue: “hackers and nonconformists,” representing 22% of all students surveyed by the National School Boards Association and 31% of all teens – a significant minority who especially need guidance not restriction (because they do have workarounds!). The authors report that they’re a group of heavy social media users, active content producers, and frequent SNS rule-breakers, and they also exhibit an “extraordinary set of traditional and 21st century skills, including communication, creativity, collaboration and leadership skills and technology proficiency” – see the 2009 study “Cookie monsters: Seeing young people’s hacking as creative practice,” by Gregory Donovan and Cindi Katz for more. These are the students who may be less engaged in traditional academics (see this) but more engaged in solving real problems (a higher proportion participate in content creation than the general student population: 50% vs. 21%). [See also this conversation with author Malcolm Gladwell; about 22 min. into the video, he talks about how people very successful in their careers don't generally fit the profile of people who were very successful in school.]

Children’s properties less rich than teens’

Not all children’s properties are as learning-rich, the Cooney report’s authors write as well. “Evidence is growing that many of the virtual worlds for children that are currently available are impoverished compared to those for teens and adults.” The reason could well be societal fears generated by the Internet-safety discourse: “Literacy scholars highlight that the greatest opportunities for literacy development occur where kids are given the most freedom for expression, but such expression is often limited (because of societal fears, etc.) on sites developed for children.”

Balancing safety with children’s rights, opportunities

This report marks another much-needed turning point in the public discourse about children in the digital age. Just by gathering what we know about the youngest media users and setting the setting an agenda for filling in the gaps, it makes a major contribution. But this modestly titled report goes further. It puts online safety in the context of children’s development, education, participation, and rights, calling for a new, balanced and evidence-based approach to the discussion of children and media. It’s time for parents and educators to take note:

“Misrepresentation is common in media coverage of kids and SNF, especially various examples of moral panic-style reports of young people’s so-called ‘deviant’ online practices,” the report’s authors write. “In addition to perpetuating harmful myths about kids and online social networking, such media classification also obscures important findings and compelling arguments about the roles that these activities can play in kids’ lives.”

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