Research to Challenge Our Assumptions About Teens, Media, Social Media, and Digital Divides

If you work with teens (or tweens) on a daily basis as I do, then you will want to read two important documents that came my way via Google Reader and my personal learning network.

The first resource, courtesy of Helen Blowers’ blog, has just been released from Nielsen and is entitled “How Teens Use Media”.  While there are many surprising findings in this study, the study also includes data that has implications for us as librarians who work with young adults:

  • Social networks play an increasingly important role (about half of
    U.S. teens use Facebook) and now many teens access the Web over their phones (37% in the U.S).  How are we using social networks and which social networks are we using to reach out to teens?  How can we work with our school/district administrators and our vendors to develop applications that will help push our library resources to teens via their mobile phones?
  • YouTube is their most popular source for online videos, yet it is still blocked in the majority of school districts.  What if we had freedom to allow our students to experience the educational and engaging videos available through YouTube during the school day?  I become frustrated when students can’t access that great news video from the Associated Press because the YouTube channel is blocked.  As we have a growing body of terrific resources, including Library of Congress, Smithsonian, and federal government agencies as well as educational materials via YouTube.edu and CitizenTube, we need to be able to provide our students access to these videos without having to get special passwords or permission.  In addition, unlimited access to YouTube would bolster our efforts to create library YouTube channels for book videos, tutorials, and screencasts.
  • According to this study, “Sixty-seven percent of teen social
    networkers say they update their page at least once a week. And teens look to their social networks for much more than gossip and photo-sharing: to teens, social networks are a key source of information
    and advice in a critical developmental period: 57% of teen social networkers said they looked to their online social network for advice, making them 63% more likely to do this than the typical social networker.”  This finding has significant implications for the importance of teaching students how to use social networks responsibly and ethically.  Teens need instruction on the concept of digital footprints and information evaluation, skills that are even more important in light of this finding.
  • 83% of the teens in the survey use their mobile phones for text messaging.  I need to be able to use my OPAC to send overdue notices or library announcements via a text message.   Right now, privacy policies adopted by many school districts impede our ability to do just this, or student information management systems are not designed to provide timely yet secure email/mobile phone information about our patrons.  The study notes, “As teens around the world continue to
    adopt mobile phones, mobile media and messaging, marketers will be paying attention.”  Does this  include library service vendors and those who make acceptable use policy decisions?

The second reading I encourage you to ponder is “The Not-So-Hidden-Politics of Class Online” by noted researcher danah boyd.   I follow danah boyd on Twitter and via her blog; I  have been fascinated by her work since discovering her about six months ago; this particular document came to my attention thanks to fabulous librarian Jessamyn West.  This document, her  notes/talking points  for an actual talk she just gave on June 30, explores the socioeconomic divide of users in social networks; in this talk, she focuses specifically on Facebook and MySpace.

Like Ms. West, I was struck by these statements from danah boyd:

For decades, we’ve assumed that inequality in relation to technology has everything to do with “access” and that if we fix the access problem, all will be fine. This is the grand narrative of concepts like the “digital divide.” Yet, increasingly, we’re seeing people with similar levels of access engage in fundamentally different ways. And we’re seeing a social media landscape where participation “choice” leads to a digital reproduction of social divisions. This is most salient in the States which is intentionally the focus of my talk here today.

There is nothing I can say here that will substitute for your taking 10-15 minutes or so to read this significant work.    As our nation grapples with the divide that still exists between ethnic and socioecnomic groups and the ramifications of that divide, so too does it play out in social worlds.   boyd obeserves:

In many ways, the Internet is providing a next generation public sphere. Unfortunately, it’s also bringing with it next generation divides. The public sphere was never accessible to everyone. There’s a reason than the scholar Habermas talked about it as the bourgeois public sphere. The public sphere was historically the domain of educated, wealthy, white, straight men. The digital public sphere may make certain aspects of public life more accessible to some, but this is not a given. And if the ways in which we construct the digital public sphere reinforce the divisions that we’ve been trying to break down, we’ve got a problem.

What does this mean to use as librarians?  Obviously, we want to teach students digital ethics as they use social networks and to use information to make decisions based on facts, not stereotypes or misinformation.  On a larger scale, though, boyd is urging us to look at social media (and I think to help our students as well) to examine the use of social media with a critical eye.

Her findings also have implications for the way we use social media to reach out to our students and parents.

So as we think about creating public spaces, what’s the meeting point for our conversations? Is it MySpace or Facebook? Twitter or IRC? What you choose matters. Where you and your colleagues hang out matters. The “voices” of the Internet that you get are biased by the people who are in the places that you hang out. But do you know this? Do you account for it? Are you working to represent all people or just the people that you can see and hear? When you’re trying to reach out to people, are you trying to reach out to all people or just the people in the environments that you understand? Are you embracing difference or are you only taking into account that with which you are comfortable?

These two readings are reminders that we need to think critically about how we are using social media and to be more aware of whom we may be including or excluding with the use of that social media.  This is the digital divide you may not realize exists, but it is just as important as the divide of equitable access.

I urge all of you who are educators or school librarians to take some time to read these two reports ; I would love to hear your thoughts and reflections on these readings!

One thought on “Research to Challenge Our Assumptions About Teens, Media, Social Media, and Digital Divides

  1. Online social networks are relatively new to me; they are something I am learning about. Your blog entry brings to my attention how these are becoming important communication tools. There are many benefits of these communication methods. One is that they allow for dialogue through time as traditional mail still does. People do not necessarily have to be in the same place at the same time to communicate. Unlike paper mail, electronic delivery facilitates faster exchange of ideas. Electronic delivery also facilitates ease in sharing ideas with one or many other people at the same time. Blogs facilitate the possibility of people being able to join a discussion on a topic of interest by searching for the topic online. People can communicate with other people who have shared interests but who may not reside in the same location. For people in rural areas; this brings opportunities to share interests with folks who other wise may be geographically too distant, unlike a chess club in New York City, or an antiques club in Dallas, Texas.
    The lack of face to face gatherings as in a club, town hall meeting, or workshop leaves out certain dimensions of in-person communication. Online communications have certain limitations that should be recognized. I feel that it is important for people not to lose sight of the value of socializing in person. On the other hand it is wonderful if nine people located in nine states across the U.S.A. can all share ideas on obscure hobbies like the study of impressionistic painters of the Caribbean, or geometry puzzles of medieval France, or repair issues of 1950s Chevrolet cars. Online social networks provide wonderful opportunities to bridge geographic distances, enabling people of very specific interests to interact easily.

    Wayne A.

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