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Kids online: Social media sites can help develop identity, study says

A new study that seeks to understand how new, kid-focused online venues effect adolescence says that social media forums can promote forms of social and identity development. Those skills, the study says, can help encourage civic involvement later in life. 

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The report both identifies the key gaps in our knowledge and puts forth a research agenda. Parents and educators will also appreciate the report’s case studies of social media services for youth. Besides LittleBigPlanet, the authors profiled…

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Guest Blogger

Anne Collier is editor of NetFamilyNews.org and co-director of ConnectSafely.org, a Web-based interactive forum and information site for teens, parents, educators, and everybody interested in the impact of the social Web on youth and vice versa. She lives in Northern California and has two sons.

Recent posts

  • Disney’s Club Penguin, with some 150 million largely 6-to-14-year-old worldwide registered users, who play in 5 languages
  • Cisco’s Networking Academy on Facebook, hosting knowledge-sharing by teens and young adults in 20 countries about designing, building, troubleshooting and securing computer networks (15,575 weekly active users, with approximate 546,416 weekly total reach, and 52% of users aged 18-24 years and 5% aged 13-17 years)
  • The very design-oriented educational virtual world Whyville.net with 6.9 million members (median ages 8-15; 24% male, 76% female)
  • The very social computer-programming and media project-sharing site Scratch.mit.edu (median age 12; 64% male, 36% female), with 1.1+ million members working in 44 languages around the world

The last case study looks at a group rather than a venue: “hackers and nonconformists,” representing 22% of all students surveyed by the National School Boards Association and 31% of all teens – a significant minority who especially need guidance not restriction (because they do have workarounds!). The authors report that they’re a group of heavy social media users, active content producers, and frequent SNS rule-breakers, and they also exhibit an “extraordinary set of traditional and 21st century skills, including communication, creativity, collaboration and leadership skills and technology proficiency” – see the 2009 study “Cookie monsters: Seeing young people’s hacking as creative practice,” by Gregory Donovan and Cindi Katz for more. These are the students who may be less engaged in traditional academics, but more engaged in solving real problems (a higher proportion participate in content creation than the general student population: 50% vs. 21%).

Children’s properties less rich than teens’

Not all children’s properties are as learning-rich, the Cooney report’s authors write as well. “Evidence is growing that many of the virtual worlds for children that are currently available are impoverished compared to those for teens and adults.” The reason could well be societal fears generated by the Internet-safety discourse: “Literacy scholars highlight that the greatest opportunities for literacy development occur where kids are given the most freedom for expression, but such expression is often limited (because of societal fears, etc.) on sites developed for children.

Balancing safety with children’s rights, opportunities

This report marks another much-needed turning point in the public discourse about children in the digital age. Just by gathering what we know about the youngest media users and setting an agenda for filling in the gaps, it makes a major contribution. But this modestly titled report goes further. It puts online safety in the context of children’s development, education, participation, and rights, calling for a new, balanced and evidence-based approach to the discussion of children and media. It’s time for parents and educators to take note:

“Misrepresentation is common in media coverage of kids and SNF, especially various examples of moral panic-style reports of young people’s so-called ‘deviant’ online practices,” the report’s authors write. “In addition to perpetuating harmful myths about kids and online social networking, such media classification also obscures important findings and compelling arguments about the roles that these activities can play in kids’ lives.”

The Christian Science Monitor has assembled a diverse group of the best family and parenting bloggers out there. Our contributing and guest bloggers are not employed or directed by the Monitor, and the views expressed are the bloggers' own, as is responsibility for the content of their blogs. Anne Collier blogs at NetFamilyNews.

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