With its fresh, sweeping look at the media lives of US 8-to-18-year-olds, the Kaiser Family Foundation’s just-released “Generation M2” is a tremendous service to parents and educators – but also a subtle disservice. The latter, because it looks at kids’ and teens’ experiences with today’s media through the lens of yesterday’s, the mass-media culture we adults grew up in. “The story of media in young people’s lives today is primarily a story of technology facilitating increased consumption,” the authors write, even while a growing body of research shows that the youth-media story is actually more about sharing, playing with, and producing media, individually and collectively, than consuming it. But more on that in a moment. First, the findings….
1. The data
As “one of the largest and most comprehensive publicly available sources of information on the amount and nature of media use among American youth,” this is also Kaiser’s third such study (the first two were done in 1999 and 2004), so it shows usage trends. “Generation M2” also zooms in on individual media and devices, behaviors such as multimedia multitasking, and gender and ethnicity differences in the data. Here are some highlights:
2. Removing the mass-media filter
So are we looking at all this data largely from the context of the media environment we grew up in, where media were consumed, professionally produced (much of it for entertainment), and government-regulated? As we read, are we worried that new media are just a waste of our kids’ time, a distraction, or even a potential health problem (Kaiser’s study appears in its “Media & Health” practice)? The Kaiser report is riddled with the words “consume” and “consumption,” when really what youth do so much more with media now is blog, share, post, text, discuss, remix, and produce, often collaboratively, as mentioned above. As sweeping as this study’s scope was, a study about their consumption is only a small part of today’s youth-media equation.
The report refers to “screen media” vs. “print media,” when what can appear on that Net-connected screen is virtually all traditional media as well as the new, user-generated kind – because the Internet increasingly mirrors all of human life, the behavioral parts (from bullying to mentoring) as well as the consumables (from great literature to research to frat party photos) and creative productions (photos, tunes, videos, podcasts) are there too. Yet, when referring specifically to young people reading text on the screen, the report cites “the latest advice column on a fashion website or a classmate’s posting on a social networking site,” not peers’ blog posts, videos or other creations.
This study wasn’t about the informal learning going on in social media, but that needs consideration in the context of youth media use. [A question asked in the 1999 Kaiser study – about whether time spent using the computer was mainly entertaining, killing time, or learning something – was in fact dropped for the next two studies (see pp. 46 and 47).] It’s important to keep in mind that extensive research into how youth use social media at home, in school, and in after-school programs shows that a lot of learning, not just entertainment, is going on in their media use. In its 2008 report, “Living and Learning with New Media,” the Digital Youth Project found that, “by exploring new interests, tinkering, and ‘messing around’ with new forms of media, [youth] acquire various forms of technical and media literacy…. By its immediacy and breadth of information, the digital world lowers barriers to self-directed learning.” In a paper on videogame-based learning, Digital Youth Project lead investigator, Dr. Mimi Ito, wrote last fall that “online groups mobilizing through games like World of Warcraft, [alternate-reality game] I Love Bees, or [virtual world] Whyville have demonstrated the possibilities of new forms of collaborative problem solving and collective action which exhibit properties of scientific inquiry.”
Probably since the beginning of modern-day-style adolescence, parents have had to adjust to unnerving new kinds and uses of media, but today’s media shift is an order of magnitude different: Not only is it mobile, multimedia, multidirectional, user-produced, one-to-many, many-to-many, and many-to-one; it’s all mixed up with traditional, professionally produced media in the same “place” – the Internet, via proliferating devices – and it’s social and behavioral (see “Youth, adults & the social-media shift”). It’s asking a lot of us adults, so there’s a strange need for both patience (with ourselves and each other as we adjust) and urgency (to hurry up and adjust!). There’s also a need to be alert to mass-media biases in what we read about youth and social media and open to the positive as well as negative implications.