THE BLOG
11/08/2012 02:34 pm ET Updated Jan 08, 2013

Kids Online: What's Next in Social Learning and Technology Will Be... Well, Unexpected!

If we heed the headlines of media accounts about how kids are using social media today, there is certainly cause for worry about how they are using the growing number of hours that they are online. According to a Kaiser Family Foundation report published in 2010, 40 percent of youth ages 8-18 spend an average of an hour a day communicating with their friends on social networking sites such as Facebook.

Similarly, Common Sense Media's recent report finds that 90 percent of American teenagers have used some form of social media -- with 75 percent currently maintaining a profile on a social networking site like Facebook or Twitter. (Interestingly, this report was published just two years after the Kaiser report and notes that 51 percent of teens visit social media sites daily -- a number that is likely to keep growing even larger as time goes on.)

There are other tangible reasons to worry about social media including incursions on privacy, compelling discussions of cyberbullying, and overt, crass marketing techniques by some corporations intent on gaining a foothold among an increasingly powerful demographic -- kids and youth.

Every concerned parent and educator in America is concerned with these issues, and has engaged in fervent discussions with youth. But can our debates help us find a good balance between the impulse to protect our children and finding ways in which social media can be harnessed for inspiration? New research from communications scholars and learning scientists suggests some specific ways that social media can promote children's learning, including their technical literacies, and important social skills, as well as key academic skills through networked participation.

A new report written for the Cooney Center by two of North America's most promising young scholars, Dr. Sara Grimes and Dr. Deborah Fields, and generously supported by Cisco Systems and the Digital Media and Learning initiative at University of California, Irvine, documents what, how and why kids are participating in growing numbers on social networking sites, both at school and at home. As the report authors point out, "commercial companies and educational non-profits alike are eager to provide new spaces for such participation, even though that means navigating some tricky regulatory requirements, not to mention shifting public opinion. For while many parents, educators, and children want to take advantage of the new opportunities presented by the latest digital technologies, they are also often concerned about the challenges children might face in social environments online." Kids online: A new research agenda for understanding social networking forums is the first comprehensive view undertaken to document pressing questions about children's involvement online. Among the key issues the analysis raises and sheds light on are:
  • Which children are using social networking forums and what are they doing there?
  • What do we know about how online experiences influence children's social, cognitive, and creative development?
  • What kind of research do we need to do in order to better understand who is going online and what kinds of things they are doing?
  • What should designers, educators, and parents be aware of as they navigate these new environments and try to help children make the most of them?

The results of the report may be surprising:

  • Children tend to be ignored in the big survey research that documents who is going online, how often, and what they are doing. This is partly because children present a challenging audience to reach. It is hard for scholars to gain access to young children (they usually go to parents, and it's just easier to talk to teens and young adults).
  • The lack of attention on children under 10 means we are missing a big opportunity to dive into the role of the most important influence that parents and educators can have on "normative" patterns of learning and healthy development. Patterns of media consumption are set in motion early in life and we need to understand much more about the underlying factors that shape consumption beyond peer influences.
  • Although there's lots of anecdotal and qualitative evidence that kids are using popular social media such as Facebook, legal terms of use and regulatory policies like the Children's Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA) often mean that children are not supposed to be there at all. A recent informal estimate found that tens of millions of children under the age of 13 have signed up for Facebook accounts, either aided by adults who are comfortable with this practice or by lying in the registration process.
  • Large-scale surveys and other research on social networking often overlook the kinds of social networking forums that children tend most to populate. Virtual worlds such as Club Penguin and Curiosityville, console videogames communities like X Box Live (did you know kids can share creations and chat through videogame consoles?), and project-sharing sites like Kerpoof where children share everything from written stories to computer-programmed animations are rarely discussed in comparison to social networking sites like Facebook.

Grimes and Fields point out that we do know some important features of social network sites that can be beneficial. There are numerous opportunities for learning on these sites including: spaces for sharing creations, getting feedback on writing, collaborating, developing literacies for reading not just printed text but visual images, hyperlinked information, and finding ways to delve into the very makings of computers (i.e., computational literacy). The possibilities for using social networking forums to enhance and support children's participation in cultural and civic engagement are also extremely exciting. There is some untapped promise for social development, too -- social networking forums can provide lower risk environments that allow kids to interact with other youth that they might be intimidated to talk to in "real life."

Kids Online also calls for national investment to advance a new research agenda: to talk directly to families and educators about the changing character of young people's digital lives. The authors suggest that the current discussion of overhauling COPPA requirements on privacy and safety is overdue, as we must revisit key policy questions to figure out who is actually regulating these spaces, under what criteria, and with whose consent. We need to know more about the ways in which online social time can be rebalanced so that the hours are not dedicated to "empty calories" or even potentially dangerous activity. To gain a better sense of what is next, we need greater insight into the role that families play in promoting the regular habits that children develop during their primary years before they become active in social media.

The authors also point out that kids themselves will likely, and unpredictably, create the "next big thing" in social networks through their own participation. It is their passion we should be promoting.

The report is available on the Joan Ganz Cooney Center website.