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Learning about ‘The Class’: Researchers on their year in middle school

There is no way a book about spending a year in the life of a middle school class – its 28 students’ home, school and digital experiences – could be reduced to a single theme. But one main takeaway from The Class, by UK researchers Sonia Livingstone and Julian Sefton-Green, may surprise and sound familiar at the same time: the old saying that “the more things change, the more they stay the same.”

Book cover of The ClassAnd “things” in this ethnically and economically diverse school community in north London both change and stay the same in so many different ways. Kids change, technology changes, but school changes little; families are all different and change along with their members, but family roles and traditions not so much, and these students’ families come, many very recently, from cultures in Africa, South Asia, eastern Europe and the Middle East where tradition is strong.

Of course we know, and this book bears out, that home, school and digital are completely intertwined for people growing up these days. But except in quiet, personal ways for some of the young people themselves, the digital part doesn’t change things much at all. It’s embedded but it certainly doesn’t connect home and school. For a few of the students, services like Tumblr, Twitter, YouTube and Facebook were tools for growing their self-knowledge by expressing themselves and connecting to communities of shared interests. But for the most part, social media was just another way to connect – evenings, weekends and other times between the face-to-face interaction that means the most to them – and really just with close friends and family.

Decidedly not obsessed with social media

Interesting, in light of all the angst and hyperbole around keeping up with rapidly changing technology that we (or at least the news media) assume has so much influence on our kids, right? Actually, The Class shows, the influences on these kids haven’t changed much at all, and they’re virtually all non-digital. Family, ethnic and school cultures topped the list. Digital was “neither all-determining nor irrelevant,” the authors write.

“The more we know about teenagers’ lives the clearer it becomes that young people are no more interested in being constantly plugged in than are the adults around them,” Livingstone wrote in a blog post about The Class. “What they want is to have the choice of when and where to disconnect from the often rule-bound and conflicted world of grown-ups they find themselves in” (if you read no more of this book review, I’d be fine with that!).

Technology for social cohesion

By far the most impactful kind of technology in the lives of these north London 13-year-olds, representing Eastern European, Middle Eastern, South Asian, East Asian, African and British cultures, though, was school technology. Not technology used to strengthen the home-school connection, which (from the school’s perspective) could undermine its authority. Not education technology used for learning. This was technology for learning where one stood at any given moment in a complex matrix of academic levels that closely tracked and documented students’ behavior as well as academic progress (a student’s “maturity” was defined by his or her level of compliance). And it was technology for maintaining social cohesion (“the class was almost constantly under surveillance, recorded and evaluated”). Interestingly, there seemed to be consensus among students as well as parents on the need for this system in order to keep everybody on task and leveling up to productive adulthood.

Students as “human becomings”

And productive adulthood seems almost to eclipse learning as the focus of their school life. “Most often, we saw young people learning an identity that fitted the future that others had planned for them,” Livingstone and Sefton-Green write. Students were seen as “human becomings” much more than human beings, to use a phrase from the Danish sociologist Jens Qvortrup, whom the authors cite in an end note:

As Qvortrup (1995) has argued powerfully, Western societies have a deeply ambivalent, even paradoxical, approach to children: they assert a positive view of them while simultaneously devaluing or neglecting their needs and experiences; children are disenfranchised within the public sphere yet castigated for being apathetic; they are subject to increasing surveillance yet seen as subversive; their imagination is valued, yet their lives are increasingly controlled; their protection is widely promoted, yet society allows many children to encounter serious risk; and so on.

If we adults can’t outgrow that ambivalence, at least we can be aware of it – see the mixed messages we send our children and students which make their already challenging growing up process even more complicated than it already is.

Digital spaces for play?

Where is the playfulness – and free play – that enables kids to “figure things out by fooling around,” as Gever Tully put it in his short, much-watched “Life Lessons through Tinkering” TED Talk? Or the play that presents chances to fall down, bounce back and grow resilience. The play that’s protective as well as developmentally necessary, as psychiatrist Stuart Brown found while watching life-saving play between a huskie and a polar bear?

So obviously this isn’t just a teenage thing. Livingstone and Sefton-Green point out how primary school children rework TV shows, computer games, films and comics in the stories they tell and games they play in free play on the playground. But this is the kind of meaning-making and identity work that happens in teens‘ digital social spaces now too. The operative term is “free play.” This gives meaning to the word “privacy.” It’s not for secrecy; it’s for uncontrolled expression, serendipity, trial and error, risk assessment, etc. The learning and meaning go away if adults impose their own desired outcomes or control in these in-between spaces on playgrounds as well as in apps. “Children and young people find most opportunity to exercise their agency in the interstices of adult-managed timetables and spaces,” the authors wrote.

Just walking home from school together is one of class members’ favorite examples. Social media’s ok too but face-to-face is better, we learn from this class. Here’s a mere sampler of some of the other digitally related insights the authors uncovered:

  • Face-to-face still the best: “They lived in smaller and more private worlds than the rhetoric of the network society might imagine, prioritizing face-to-face communication and valuing time with their families,” Livingstone and Sefton-Green write. In fact, “digital networks underpin face-to-face networks.” They’re not at all the alternate reality some adults have imagined them to be. If anything, because of social media, youth value face-to-face more than ever.
  • Sensitive to digital socializing’s conditions. The authors found the students “highly attuned to the particular social situations available to them, including paying close attention to the particular affordances of social networking sites – the conditions of visibility, connectivity, discoverability, amplification, and most important, privacy.”
  • Evidence of “stranger danger” about nil. “Young people could use the Internet to get to know almost anyone, but they stick to their own kind.” Even though some had hundreds of Facebook “friends” and one as many as 1,000, “we found the young people to be rather cautious and sensible in building their friendships.”
  • Family’s important. “For all the young people, family was a primary and defining social resource…. Online communication seemed to reinforce (rather than undermine) the importance of relationship with family and local friends built primarily through face-to-face communication.”
  • Social media profiles carefully curated: The authors gave examples of how well these 13-year-olds understood both how to present themselves online and the potential impacts. This was the pre-Snapchat era, and the students seemed to have absorbed messages about how things posted online could stay there forever, but curation was also a form of entertainment and self-knowledge development, apparently not seen as a heavy responsibility.
  • Families not “alone together.’ “We disagree with [MIT professor] Sherry Turkle, who despairs, in [her book] Alone Together, that ‘we are increasingly connected to each other but oddly more alone.’ Indeed, we saw little evidence that young people – or their parents – are becoming so obsessed with their personal screens that they no longer have time for each other.” What the authors did notice was “an often-mediated but still-genuine togetherness that sustains the fragile balance between individuality and commonality required in the modern “democratic’ family” – commonality being a growing imperative in families (see this), it seems, where civility is at school.
  • Parents’ media strategies. The authors noticed the same parenting strategies toward digital media that scholars have noted here in the US: “active mediation” (discussing or interpreting media use with their kids), “co-use” (e.g., playing digital games together), and “restrictive” (e.g., rules and timeouts, “often the simplest to justify”). “Limiting screen time was a particular concern in virtually all homes. Yet, at the same time, all sought to avoid conflict” over restrictions (because of the desire for commonality).
  • Focus of influences not online. The authors did not see all that much influence on the students from some adult-imagined wider world “out there” online. “Rather, [the students] were embedded, more or less securely, within rather tight networks … centered on home, school, locale and diaspora.”
  • Control vs. agency. The more their offline spaces are controlled, the more young people go online to do their necessary identity work. “Like adults, they talk themselves into being,” and one needs space – not so much private as uncontrolled – in which to do that “self-making,” as the authors put it. Sometimes that space is online, sometimes it’s just “the weekend, when, they told the authors, they could “do whatever I want, really.” Weekends were valued “as time under the control of the young people themselves.” What they were communicating to these researchers, apparently, was that “agency lies not in what you do but in the fact that you decide to do it.”

Agency is a developmental imperative – what you need in order to figure out who you are as a person and in relation to those around you. So if, as the authors say, social media is one place where teens find they can exercise that agency, do we really want to make policy focused more on blocking and surveiling media use than on understanding and guiding it? The Class suggests we get on with the latter.

“We were struck by the lack of close attention to young people’s voices and experiences,” Livingstone and Sefton-Green wrote. So they paid close attention, and this book is the much-needed result.

Related links

  • U.S. perspectives on the pressures adult society imposes on young people: “We’re destroying our kids — for nothing: Too much homework, too many tests, too much needless pressure,” from parent, author and filmmaker Vicki Abeles in and “The Silicon Valley Suicides,” in The Atlantic, where Hanna Rosin cites the groundbreaking work of Arizona State University psychology professor Suniya Luthar.
  • Are children human beings or human becomings? A critical assessment of outcome thinking,” by sociologist Jens Qvortrup in the International Journal of Social Science, 2009
  • In The Class (p. 165), Livingstone and Sefton-Green talk about a “commonality” as something families seek to sustain and ground family members “even as … children move toward greater independence.” The passage reminded me of findings at Emory University about how a strong family narrative helps kids develop self-esteem, resilience, identity, and all the other good things that sustain safety, mental health, and good relationships online and offline. I linked to parent and author Bruce Feiler’s eloquent 2013 commentary on that here.
  • From the University of California, Irvine, “Friending, IMing, and hanging out face-to-face: overlap in adolescents’ online and offline social networks,” in which these researchers also found that socializing “patterns suggest that adolescents use online contexts to strengthen offline relationships” (see links to similar studies in the right-hand margin of the page).
  • I was so struck by what psychiatrist Stuart Brown said in the 2009 radio interview (mentioned above) about how play can disarm aggression even when there’s a major power differential that I had to write about it. This was the first time I (and I’m sure many people) heard that play is not only key to healthy developmental, it’s protective.
  • A day in the digital life of teenagers,” a blog post in by co-author Sonia Livingstone
  • A video interview with the authors about their book
  • “How children engage with the Internet”: Sonia Livingstone’s April 2014 TEDxExeter talk
  • “WHAT has ‘online safety’ wrought (with parents)?” a 2012 blog post of mine with the view from Canada
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2 Comments Post a comment
  1. Peggy Sheehy #

    Can’t wait to read this, Anne—although I must admit the recurring thought that went through my head as I devoured your review was, “hmm, I’m a middle school teacher and they are describing exactly what I do every year in terms of living with my students, observing their sn habits, and,most times, seeing how they interact with their families (sometimes more than I care to!). Of course, I’m not gathering data…. much.

    July 7, 2016
    • Anne #

      You need to write the American version now! Can’t wait! (They were more about observing and listening respectfully than gathering data, as we think of the latter. You’re brilliant at that too.)

      July 7, 2016

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