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Plumbing the mysterious practices of 'digital youth'
In first public report from a 'seminal' study, UC Berkeley scholars shed light on kids' use of Web 2.0 tools

The elastic heart of youth cannot be compressed into one constrained shape long at a time. What if he turned his back, now, and disappeared mysteriously? What if he went away — ever so far away, into unknown countries beyond the seas…?
— Mark Twain, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer

 Grabbing a photo with a cell-phone camera. (Photo shared by L-ines ["German," "female"], on Flickr website.)
Grabbing a photo with a cell-phone camera. (Photo by "L-ines" on Flickr website.)
 

If Tom Sawyer were a kid today, he might "disappear mysteriously" not into a Missouri cave but behind the door of his bedroom — there to explore a virtual world with his avatar, write on a friend's Facebook wall, record the dance steps to his hip-hop track and upload them to YouTube, or create a Harry Potter podcast. A new generation of "Web 2.0" tools has transformed kids' ability to socialize, play, create, and widely disseminate their productions — and has left many of their elders in the dark.

What are kids doing online? How are they using digital media? And what does their use of digital media mean for schools, families, and civic life? More than 400 grown-ups, looking for answers to such questions, turned out April 23 for a public forum on "New Media in the Everyday Lives of Youth" held at Stanford University

The event marked the first public report on a national research program on "digital youth," as part of a $50 million John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation initiative. Researchers presented several case studies on "the first generation to truly grow up digital," in the words of Mimi Ito, a University of Southern California cultural anthropologist and a lead investigator on the Digital Youth Project. "This is perhaps the largest ethnographic study in this area," she said, "and what we believe is likely to be the seminal study of young people's participation in digital media."

Online socializing, media-rich homes, hiphop music makers

UC Berkeley researcher danah boyd (her spelling), like other forum participants, eschewed the hand wringing that often accompanies adult discussions of young people's use of new media. "Teens do not have as much access to physical space as they once did," she noted. Because they're overscheduled, or are dependent on adults to drive them places, or their parents are afraid for their safety, or their friends can't go out, "online is more easy and accessible, even when they're stuck at home."

Typical conversation on Facebook 'wall':

'yo, whaz up?'
'not much. how you?' 'good'

Translation:

'I'm thinking of you and want validation that we're still friends and you're still thinking of me.'

'Yes of course I am, silly, and I'll announce it publicly.'

— dana boyd
iSchool Ph.D. student

A doctoral candidate at the UC Berkeley School of Information (the iSchool) and a blogger on new media, boyd crisscrossed the nation to interview and observe teenagers regarding their participation in sites such as MySpace, Facebook, and YouTube. She also visited thousands of pages on these social-networking sites, where youth carry on conversations such as "yo, whaz up?" "not much. how you?" "good.'" Translation: "I'm thinking of you and want validation, that we're still friends and you're still thinking of me." "Yes of course I am, silly, and I'll announce it publicly.'"

Adults may read these interactions as pointless. For teens, boyd asserted, they're a way of affirming friendships. And while "hanging out" online gets a bad rap with some parents, boyd said this unstructured time has value for teens — as "social and emotional down time" and a place for them to "make sense of social norms and peer relations."

Sociocultural anthropologist Heather Horst reported on studies of how new media and technology impact the family — her own ethnographic study of professional families in Silicon Valley, and fellow researchers' work in the Sierra foothills, the East Bay suburbs, central Los Angeles, and other settings. By way of these wide-ranging ethnographic studies, she said, researchers were able to observe cultural shifts in the organization of domestic space — including a trend toward media-rich bedrooms — as well as the way in which families use and share media. "Families of all incomes and class levels live in media rich worlds," said Horst, a postdoc at UC Berkeley's Institute for the Study of Social Change and coauthor of a book on cell phone use in Jamaica.

Dilan Mahendran, an iSchool Ph.D. candidate interested in the intersection of race and technology, shared reflections — illustrated with video clips of the virtuoso female rapper "Mistreat" — on his two-year ethnographic research on hiphop music making in after-school programs in San Francisco. "Adults provide these spaces, but kids inhabit them," he said. New technologies make it easier for young people to sample, mix, record, and distribute hiphop music, using it to ask the questions "Who am I? What can I know? What should I do? What can I hope for?" said Mahendran.

Interest-driven networked communities

Grassroots hiphop artists often become part of what have been called "interest-driven" online communities — where, Ito said, "marginal" teens are able to find likeminded peers or to achieve proficiency or status without being labeled a "dork." Gay teens are among those who seek out such online communities, she noted. So do teens with serious passions, be they Buffy the Vampire Slayer fans or Japanese anime fan subbers, who translate and subtitle foreign films for fellow enthusiasts.

The forum showcased just a handful of the 22 case studies funded through the Digital Youth Project. Berkeley DYP researchers have also investigated, among other topics, pro-anorexia and pro-bulimia online discussion groups, collaborative storytelling among fifth graders, teaching and learning with multimedia tools, teenagers' use of video games in a cyber cafe setting, and digital photography diaries of kids entering middle school. The scholars plan to do shared analysis of their findings for a report to be released later this year.

"New Media in the Everyday Lives of Youth" was presented by the San Francisco-based non-profit Common Sense Media and the MacArthur Foundation. If you missed the live simulcast on Second Life, a webcast of the forum will be available in the near future on each organization's website.