Time Spent Online Important for Teens

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Since its release in November, the discussions within the blogosphere about this new study—and people on Twitter referencing it—has been a major driver of online conversation due to it being a key validation of the social media space, especially where it relates to the generation we’re raising, those who are poised to run our world.

Every intuition and knowing many of us have had—that one, huge benefit to TEL.A.VISION is empowering kids to become more new media literate and better able to communicate their individual visions—means that the release of this study and its findings will play a role as an informational milestone and one we thought you’d find intriguing as we did.

Kids’ Informal Learning with Digital Media: An Ethnographic Investigation of Innovative Knowledge Cultures is a three-year collaborative project funded by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation. Carried out by researchers at the University of Southern California and University of California, Berkeley, the digital youth project explores how kids use digital media in their everyday lives.

New Study Finds Time Spent Online Important for Teen Development
MacArthur Foundation eNewsletter-November 2008

The most extensive U.S. study on teens and their use of digital media finds that America’s youth are developing important social and technical skills online – often in ways adults do not understand or value.

“It might surprise parents to learn that it is not a waste of time for their teens to hang out online,” said Mizuko Ito, University of California, Irvine researcher 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.”

The study was supported by the MacArthur Foundation’s $50-million digital media and learning initiative, which is exploring how digital media are changing how young people learn, play, socialize, and participate in civic life.

Over three years, Ito’s team of 28 researchers interviewed over 800 young people and their parents, both one-on-one and in focus groups; spent more than 5,000 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.

The researchers identified two distinct 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 may not be present in the teen’s local peer group.

The study also finds that young people are learning basic social and technical skills through their use of digital media that they need to participate fully in contemporary society. The social worlds that youth are negotiating offer new dynamics, as online socializing is permanent and public, involves managing elaborate networks of friends and acquaintances, and is always on.

According to researchers, young people are motivated to learn from their peers, as well as adults, online. The Internet provides new kinds of public spaces for youth to interact and receive feedback from one another. This may be different from how students are often asked to learn in schools.

In a cautionary note to parents, the study indicates that most youth are not taking full advantage of the learning opportunities of the Internet. While most youth use the Internet socially, they may overlook learning opportunities. Serious learning opportunities are abundant online in such subjects as astronomy, history, creative writing, and foreign languages. Youth can connect with people in different locations and of different ages who share their interests, making it possible follow pursuits that might not be popular or valued with their local peer groups.

The research demonstrates that, although many young people are developing a broad range of sophisticated new literacy and technical skills, they are also facing new challenges in how to manage their visibility and social relationships online. For example, online media, messages, and profiles that young people post can travel far beyond what is expected.


  • The study website
  • Two page summary (PDF)
  • White Paper – Living and Learning with New Media: Summary of Findings from the Digital Youth Project (PDF)
  • Article here in The New York Times and many others.