It took a small army of authors, postdoc fellows, grad assistants, undergrad researchers, and associated contributors to discover that the generational influence of digital media is... um, not that different from other generational infuences in the past. Which is no small discovery. Twenty years of discourse on new media has been largely dominated by scare tactics and misplaced anger. Though this brief white paper leaves some questions unanswered, it will hopefully allay baseless fears and turn the discourse in more productive directions.
Our authors spent three years observing how youth utilize the new media, and they divide their findings into three broad areas. In the first, "hanging out," youth use tech to make and interact with friends. Parents may think this frivolous, but it allows subject specialization and geographic diffusion that make me downright jealous. The authors describe online role-players mustering groups of 150 to carry out massive organized attacks on fearsome monsters. Recalling my long-haired youth, when dragooning five fellow nerds for an ad hoc Dungeons & Dragons game required Kissinger-like diplomacy, I can't help thinking these kids have it posh.
The second area, "messing around," sees kids wanting to discover the possibilities of their technology for personnal improvement or self-education. You read that right: it sees kids WANTING to learn. Largely ignored in academic settings, this desire has nevertheless seen youth jumping off the rails of adult-guided schooling for a more peer-based and collaborative approach in which they learn recreational, practical, and even professional skills without grown-ups hanging around to grade and judge them.
The third area, "geeking out," sees youth delve aggressively into whatever field motivates their passion. Media content generation, fan culture, and code-crunching all get disparaged by parents as a waste of time, but they help youth create purpose-built peer communities in which all collaborate. Youth bond, build connections, and unify over their creations in ways people my age never could when we had to photocopy fan magazines for the two dozen friends who shared our obscure interests.
Our authors leave some questions unanswered. Are the skills youth learn in digital communities portable to real life, or will they remain online fan curiosities? When your community is scattered globally, what happens when you need real neighborliness? If youth educate themselves on a peer-to-peer basis, how do they avoid having to reinvent the wheel when they encounter questions they can't answer, but a adult might?
But if we read this study not as an answer to all questions, but as an attempt to repurpose the debate, it offers needed perspectives for parents and teacers. Like the Model T, television, or rock & roll, digital media has been subject to nasty snap opinions. But if we think rather than react, we can use the new opportunities to help youth rather than see them as merely circling the drain.