The 'Digital Gap' between Parents and Teens

If you’re like most parents, you’re likely concerned about the amount of time your teens spend online. But there’s some good news here: A collaborative university study funded by the MacArthur Foundation found that the time teens spend online enables them to develop important social and technical skills that are vital to their futures.

What is it good for?

Online spaces help youth connect with peers in new ways, the study found. It also noted that teens rely on the online world to explore divergent interests – and seek information beyond their access at school or in their communities.

In this Digital Youth Project – one of the most extensive studies of the use of digital media by teenagers – researchers concluded that teens generate and construct new forms of expression, as well as rules for social behavior, through their online activity, which many parents neither understand nor appreciate.

"It might surprise parents to learn that it is not a waste of time for their teens to hang out online," lead author Mizuko Ito of the University of California-Irvine says in the report. Instead, the study points to the significant ways the web helps teens learn, play, socialize and participate in civic life.

Hanging out – and learning

Whether parents like it or not, digital media is becoming one of the mainstays of peer culture for U.S. teens. It now occupies a role previously filled by local hangouts like malls, schools and homes. Much of the interaction is centered in online social and commercial entertainment venues that are "generally frowned upon in formal educational settings."

But the study, which examined ways in which teens learn from each other online, maintains that learning in today’s world is very "peer-based and networked" – which has implications for education in the 21st century. Digital media is providing a platform for self-motivated learning to occur, which is a critical tool in educating today’s youth.

"Kids learn on the Internet in a self-directed way, by looking around for information they are interested in or connecting with others who can help them," Ito says. And this, she notes, is a huge departure from how traditional classrooms are structured, where the teacher is the master of subjects and there are specific materials to cover.

The Digital Youth Project study concludes, in part, that online peer-based learning has a unique role in public education, which is in desperate need of out-of-the-box thinking regarding alternatives to the more structured, formal educational experience teens encounter today.

One other finding of note: While online activity has many positives, teens don’t fully utilize online learning opportunities – nor do they grasp the ramifications of their public interactions. And sadly, many parents are poorly equipped to help their teens in these areas since their experience is limited as well.

The message for parents

So what’s the take-away of this study for parents? First, we must accept online activity as the new social norm, the teen ecology for social, technical and cultural participation. It is the bastion of kids’ attention and focus – and it is not going away.

Instead of seeing online interaction as antithetical to learning, researchers urge parents – as well as educators – to "step in" and support activities that motivate teens to move from more friendship-driven uses of the Internet to interest-driven engagement.

Parents also are urged to embrace a cultural shift and remain open to some degree of experimentation and exploration online. But we also can feel at ease knowing that the researchers didn’t find many teens engaging in conduct that’s riskier than in offline situations.

Most important, parents would do well to educate themselves about the Internet and online activities. As the researchers note, there’s a tremendous risk of creating an intergenerational fissure between a teen who’s highly engaged online and a parent who is completely disengaged and disinterested in digital media. Some level of online interest is essential to stay connected with your teenagers and their affairs.

Parents should also develop a familiarity with the social norms and expectations for online engagement and communication. But don’t hover over your teens’ activities; that’s one sure way to be shut out. Be engaged yourself, but, as the study concludes, do not "bear down on kids with complicated rules and restrictions and heavy-handed norms."

And remember, the dangers or benefits of online activity come not from the volume of time your teens spend online. Rather, it lies in the quality of participation and learning. Content and context do matter!

Ultimately, when parents trust that their own values and expectations are imparted in a positive way through constant and ongoing communication with their teenagers, then the digital media will be a welcome source of shared focus and interest rather than a cause for angst and concern.


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