I have been studying youth and media for more than three decades, and have been a parent for over two, and like many observers of youth culture I've had a tendency to worry when young people adopt new media technologies. Certainly, some of our fears are justified -- for example, when media use displaces time spent being physically active or when the content is age inappropriate. But young people today can teach us valuable lessons about how to harness technology to create the greatest personal and societal benefits.
Media should suit our lives, tastes, and schedules, not the other way around.
When I was growing up, I spent a lot of time either waiting around for a favorite TV show or watching whatever one of the big three networks happened to put on the air. Since they programmed for the lowest common denominator, I watched a lot of dreck. The abundance of choices available to young people today means that they can watch programs that not only interest them but also in a way that fits their lifestyle. If their friends have discovered a gem of a program, they can search it out on Hulu, stream it on Netflix, or watch it On Demand. They can customize their home pages, and download apps that make it easy to find what matters to them most. What's more, many young people have the motivation, tools, and skills to not only comment on what they're seeing and reading but create their own content for their peers. While I would not argue that the "lean back" experience of media is obsolete, today's "lean forward" audience has achieved a level of control over their media that I could never have dreamed of as a kid.
Media can enhance and advance personal connections.
The Pew Charitable Trusts reports that more than eight in 10 12-17-year-olds use social media, with the vast majority on Facebook and a growing number on Twitter and Instagram. I have observed young people's embrace of social media with a wary eye, wondering whether all of this social connectedness is undermining "real life" friends. As a relative latecomer to Facebook, I needed my kids' help to create my site, adjust my privacy settings, and learn the social norms about what to share and how to comment. But now I see what young people have known all along. Rather than displacing friendships, social media offer the opportunity to strengthen and extend them. And with my own kids - who are also my Facebook friends - off on their own adventures, Facebook updates provide us with information that cues later, more engaging in-person conversations.
Digital communities can be organized for social change.
Julia Kramer-Golinkoff's big sister, Emily, was born with cystic fibrosis, a genetic disease that affects the lungs and digestive system of about 70,000 people worldwide. The high school student watched helplessly as her sister struggled with frequent life threatening lung infections and hospitalizations. For 16 years, Julia felt unable to do anything significant to help. But in 2011, Julia and her brother, Coby, decided to channel their feelings of powerlessness into action. They activated their voices and mobilized their communities to found Emily's Entourage, a nonprofit organization to raise money and awareness to fight cystic fibrosis. Julia and Coby used media as the engine for their efforts. They created a video about Emily's life and accomplishments, which they then posted on their new website, EmilysEntourage.org. They used blogs, Twitter, and Facebook to spread their message. In two short years, they built and nurtured a digital community with thousands of fans and followers and which has raised hundreds of thousands dollars. Part of the reason for their success: fostering a two-way flow of commitment and engagement. Julia and Coby sold Emily's Entourage T-shirts at fundraising events at their schools, and asked their followers to post pictures of themselves wherever they might be wearing their EE T-shirts. As Coby said in a 2012 TED talk:
"The coolest part of 'where in the world is Emily's entourage?' is it showed each and every member that they are the entourage. And that's a powerful and empowering concept."
As parents, scholars, and advocates we have the responsibility to help today's youth to use digital media in ways that are beneficial and developmentally appropriate. And as young audiences figure out creative and innovative ways to leverage the media, it will be our privilege to watch them flourish as active, engaged citizens of the world.