The “Digital Divide” between Parents and Kids

Like most parents, you’re probably concerned about the “Digital Divide” between you and your kids, especially regarding how much time they spend online. However, there is some good news: A MacArthur Foundation-funded collaborative university study discovered that the time teens spend online allows them to develop essential social and technical skills that will help them in the future.

What is it useful for?

According to the study, online spaces allow youth to connect with their peers in novel ways. It was also noted that teens use the Internet to explore diverse interests and seek information that is not available at school or in their communities.

Researchers concluded in this Digital Youth Project, one of the most extensive studies of adolescent use of digital media, that teens generate and construct new forms of expression and rules for social behavior through their online activity, which many parents do not understand or appreciate.

“Parents may be surprised to learn that their teens’ online activities are not a waste of time,” says lead author Mizuko Ito of the University of California-Irvine in the report. Instead, the study highlights the significant ways in which the Internet assists teens in learning, playing, socializing, and participating in civic life.

Having fun while learning.

Whether parents like it or not, digital media is becoming a mainstay of peer culture for American teenagers. It has taken the place of local hangouts such as malls, schools, and homes. The majority of the interaction takes place in online social and commercial entertainment venues, which are “generally frowned upon in formal educational settings.”

However, the study, which looked at how teens learn from each other online, concludes that learning in today’s world is very “peer-based and networked,” which has implications for education in the twenty-first century. Digital media facilitates self-motivated learning, an important tool for educating today’s youth.

“Kids learn on the Internet in a self-directed manner by searching for information of interest or connecting with others who can assist them,” Ito says. This, she observes, is a significant departure from how traditional classrooms are organized, in which the teacher is the subject master and specific materials must be covered.

The Digital Youth Project study concludes, in part, that online peer-based learning plays a unique role in public education, which is in desperate need of innovative approaches to alternatives to the more structured, formal educational experiences that teens face today.

Another interesting finding is that, while online activity has many benefits, teens do not fully utilize online learning opportunities, nor do they understand the implications of their public interactions. Unfortunately, many parents are ill-equipped to assist their teenagers in these areas because their own experience is limited.

The message for parents.

So, what are the implications of this study for parents? First and foremost, we must recognize online activity as the new social norm, the teen ecology for social, technical, and cultural participation. It is the pillar of children’s attention and focus and is not going away.

Rather than viewing online interaction as antithetical to learning, researchers urge parents and educators to “step in” and support activities that encourage teens to shift from more friendship-driven Internet use to interest-driven engagement.

Parents are also encouraged to embrace a cultural shift and to remain open to some degree of online experimentation and exploration. But we can also rest easy knowing that the researchers did not find many teens engaging in riskier behavior than in offline situations.

Most importantly, parents should educate themselves about the Internet and their children’s online activities. As the researchers point out, there is a significant risk of an intergenerational schism developing between a teen who is highly engaged online and a parent who is completely disengaged and disinterested in digital media. To stay connected with your teenagers and their affairs, you must maintain some level of online interest.

Parents should also become acquainted with the social norms and expectations associated with online engagement and communication. But don’t hover over your teen’s activities; that’s a sure way to get them to shut down. Engage yourself, but don’t “bear down on kids with complicated rules, restrictions, and heavy-handed norms,” as the study concludes.

Remember that the dangers or benefits of online activity are not determined by the amount of time your teens spend online. Rather, it is found in the level of participation and learning. Both content and context are important!

Finally, when parents believe that their own values and expectations are being instilled positively in their teenagers through constant and ongoing communication, digital media will be a welcome source of shared focus and interest rather than a source of angst and concern.

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