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America’s youth are developing important social and technical skills online in ways adults do not understand or value, according to a study conducted by the University of Southern California and the University of California, Berkley, and funded by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation.

The study – which is being hailed as the most extensive US study on teens and their use of new media – took a close and detailed look at how new technologies are changing how young people learn, play, socialize, and participate in civic life.

It found that instead of trying to limit the time youth spend online, adults and educators should play a central role in facilitating young people’s use of technology to learn and grow.

“It might surprise parents to learn that it is not a waste of time for their teens to hang out online,” said Mizuko Ito, researcher at the University of California, Irvine and the report’s lead author. “There are myths about kids spending time online – that it is dangerous or making them lazy. But we found that spending time online is essential for young people to pick up the social and technical skills they need to be competent citizens in the digital age.”

Ito and her team of researchers found that participation in the digital age means more than being able to access serious online information and culture. Youth using new media often learn from their peers, and notions of expertise and authority are being redefined.

The research identified two distinctive categories of teen engagement with digital media: Friendship-driven and interest-driven. While friendship-driven participation centered on “hanging out” with existing friends, interest-driven participation involved accessing online information and communities that might not be present in the local peer group.

Significant study findings:

  • There is a generation gap in how youth and adults view the value of online activity.
    • ?Adults tend to be in the dark about what youth are doing online, and often view online activity as risky or an unproductive distraction.
    • Youth understand the social value of online activity and are generally highly motivated to participate.
  • ? Youth are navigating complex social and technical worlds by participating online.
    • Young people are learning basic social and technical skills that they need to fully participate in contemporary society.
    • The social worlds that youth are negotiating have new kinds of dynamics, as online socializing is permanent, public, involves managing elaborate networks of friends and acquaintances, and is always on.
  • ? Young people are motivated to learn from their peers online.
    • The Internet provides new kinds of public spaces for youth to interact and receive feedback from one another.
    • Young people respect each other’s authority online and are more motivated to learn from each other than from adults.
  • ? Most youth are not taking full advantage of learning opportunities on the internet.
    • Most youth use the internet socially, but other learning opportunities exist.
    • Youth can connect with people in different locations and of different ages who share their interests, making it possible to pursue interests that might not be popular or valued with their local peer groups.
    • “Geeked-out” learning opportunities are abundant – such as subjects like astronomy, creative writing, and foreign languages.

“This study creates a baseline for our understanding of how young people are participating with digital media and what that means for their learning,” said Connie Yowell, PhD, director of education at the MacArthur Foundation. “It concludes that learning today is becoming increasingly peer-based and networked, and this is important to consider as we begin to re-imagine education in the 21st century.”

“Online spaces provide unprecedented opportunities for kids to expand their social worlds and engage in public life, whether that is connecting with peers over MySpace or Facebook, or publishing videos on YouTube,” said Ito. “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. This is a big departure from how they are asked to learn in most schools, where the teacher is the expert and there is a fixed set of content to master.”

About the research: The study, which is part of the MacArthur Founation’s $50-million digital media and learning initiative, was spearheaded by Ito, the late Peter Lyman of the University of California, Berkeley, and Michael Carter of the Monterey Institute for Technology and Education. The research leaders oversaw a team of 28 researchers and collaborators at the University of Southern California and the University of California, Berkeley. Over three years, they interviewed over 800 young people and their parents, both one-on-one and in focus groups; spent over 5000 hours observing teens on sites such as MySpace, Facebook, YouTube, and other networked communities; and conducted diary studies to document how, and to what end, young people engage with digital media.

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