Over the past several years, there has been a significant increase in youth’s ownership of and access to Internet accessible devices. In the United States, 58% of young people ages 13-17 have or have access to a tablet, 87% have or have access to a laptop or desktop computer, and 73% have or have access to a smartphone (Lenhart, 2015). This increase in device ownership, coupled with the rise of mobile apps, has simplified the process of accessing and using the Internet. According to a recent study by the Pew Research Center, “92% of American teens report going online daily — including 24% who say they go online almost constantly” (Lenhart, 2015). These numbers represent a global phenomenon, with similar statistics reported from Switzerland (Willemse et al., 2014) and other European countries (Livingstone et al., 2014).
On top of having access to a greater number of devices and being online more often, youth are also using a greater variety of online platforms. Of these platforms, social media is particularly prevalent. Since its inception, social media has transitioned from solely a means of connecting with friends and experimenting with identity to a medium that encourages a wide array of endeavors from creativity (i.e. Instagram, Snapchat, and Vine) to staying up to date with the news and pop culture (i.e. Twitter and Facebook). This trend of growing diversity in platforms has been followed by youth, as many young people are using more than one social media platform (Lenhart, 2015). This trend indicates that young people do not rely on one social media outlet, but that their social media identities are increasingly complex and segmented across multiple platforms. Empirical and anecdotal evidence suggests that it is common for one person to be active on multiple messaging apps, gaming apps, and networking apps at once.
The increasing complexity and frequency of social media usage has made different stakeholders (including parents, educators, technology providers, policy-makers, and young people themselves) concerned about challenges youth face online, including threats to safety, lack of privacy, and exposure to violent and hateful content online. Conversely, a growing body of research shows that the Internet offers youth new avenues for education, civic engagement, interaction with current events, and access to high quality information (Ito et al., 2013; Gordon, Baldwin-Philippi, & Balestra, 2013; Cortesi & Gasser, 2015).
Against this backdrop, the Youth and Media project at the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard University takes a closer look at U.S. youth age 12-18 and the dynamics of their interaction with the Internet, particularly in regards to social media. Due to the broad scope of youth’s interaction with the Internet, we have subdivided the Youth and Media project into two overarching categories: (1) “Risks”, in which we examine the challenges young people face on the Internet, and (2) “Opportunities”, in which we examine how the Internet can be a force for good in young people’s lives. Within these overarching categories, we have various projects that are outline in greater depth below.
By dividing the Youth and Media project into two overarching categories, we hope to generate the most complete picture of youth’s Internet usage possible.
At the Youth and Media Project, we rely primarily upon qualitative methods in our research. At the outset of the project, there was little information about youth’s Internet usage because the topic had not been previously pursued by academia. Therefore, we knew that we needed to start with descriptive research to provide foundational knowledge about how young people interact with technology and the Internet. We learned quickly that, while quantitative survey methods provided raw data, they did not tell the complete story of youth’s activity in cyberspace. As a result, we looked to other research methods to generate necessary descriptive information. Soon, we started experimenting with qualitative methods as a means of overcoming the shortcomings of quantitative methods; we found success.
Since transitioning to this new approach, we have created the largest qualitative research project on youth issues on the Internet in the world.
- Between May and December 2011, we conducted 16 focus group interviews with 114 participants aged 12 to 18 in Boston and New York City. Focus group interviews lasted for one hour each. Additionally, we selected 38 participants to complete a 26 multiple-choice questionnaire about their online behavior and social media practices.
- In February and August 2013, we conducted 30 focus group interviews with 203 participants aged 11 to 19 in Boston, Chicago, Greensboro, Los Angeles, and Santa Barbara. Focus groups session began with a 15 minute segment in which the participants complete a 20 multiple choice question survey and a free response question. Next, the researchers conducted 75 minute interviews with each focus group. The total elapsed time for each focus group session was 90 minutes.
- In 2016, we will conduct 18 focus group interviews with 90 participants in Boston, Chicago, and Los Angeles. Additional cities may be added depending upon funding and school interest. Focus groups session will begin with a 15-minute segment in which the participants complete a survey and a free response question. Next, we will conduct 75-minute interviews with each focus group. The total elapsed time for each focus group session will be 90 minutes. Participants will range in age from 12 to 18.
While our research has been primarily qualitative, we have also partnered with Pew Research Center for a quantitative report on youth use of technology and the Internet. Building on this foundation, we hope to expand our existing qualitative focus by incorporating quantitative and mixed methods research techniques.
Research Categories and Focus Areas
As noted above, youth face a series of challenges and opportunities online. Youth and Media focuses on key risks and opportunities that have been highlighted as particularly important issues both by researchers (Palfrey & Gasser, 2008) as well as policy-makers around the world (Cortesi & Gasser, 2015). As such, Youth and Media seeks to make a significant contribution to the field of youth and media research, and to inform policy conversations on this topic.
Youth and Media focuses on a number of selected areas from the following list:
1) Online Safety. This focus area attempts to build a deeper understanding on some of the concerns youth and parents have about the risky activities youth might engage in as well as safety risks and harms youth might face online, such as cyberbullying, sexting, and stranger danger. The focus area aims to better comprehend what these potential risks and harms actually are and works to address new measures to help equip and empower youth to better address, cope, and prevent them.
- How is cyberbullying different from bullying and is it more harmful?
- What is ‘sexting’ and what harms can it bring?
- How do children cope with these online risks?
- How can we foster a better dialogue between parents and children to both support Internet use and mitigate online risks?
2) Privacy. This focus area seeks to build a more nuanced understanding of youth’s conception of privacy so we can gauge how this conception may differ from an adult perspective, and observe how it is reflected in the kinds of activities youth engage in online.
- What concepts equivalent to ‘privacy’ are embedded in how youth use social media?
- What kinds of activities do youth engage in when they are online, and how do they control information posted online?
- Who do youth primarily interact with when they’re online? How do youth view relationships with adults and with their peers online?
- How can we foster a grounded discussion about what technologies — and which associated policies — would be most useful and appropriate to ensure youth’s privacy online?
3) Youth, Gangs, and Social Media. This focus area takes a closer look at how gang presence in a community can affect youth’s behavior on social media. Specifically, this research area looks at how the community context appears to influence what information is relevant to youth, how information is shared, and how youth relate that information to maintaining safety. Additionally, it analyzes how the Internet serves as a forum to organize gang members for activity, recruit new members, and show gang unity.
- How is gang activity intertwined with a community’s online identity?
- How do gangs make decisions on what to post on social media?
- How does gang activity online impact the Internet experiences of youth in the communities where the gangs are based?
- How do individual member identity and gang group identity reconcile online?
- Does gang activity online lead to violence offline?
4) Youth-Oriented Hate Speech Online. This fourth focus area is taking a collaborative and interdisciplinary approach on the issue of youth-oriented online hate speech (broadly defined; encompassing but not limited to attacks on gender, sexual orientation, race, ethnicity, religion, and histories of violence).
- What is hate speech, and how does it function online?
- How does hate speech differ from cyberbullying or trolling?
- How does hate speech impact youth and their communities?
- How can hate speech be effectively mitigated and prevented?
1) Information Quality and Literacy. The Internet has led to structural changes in the information environment that affect the quality of this information. The increased and more diverse set of “speakers” online, the lack of traditional gatekeepers, the entrance of new intermediaries, the disappearance or replacement of mechanisms and standards aimed at ensuring certain quality levels, media convergence, and context shifts make quality judgments about information in the digital media ecosystem arguably more challenging and makes corresponding skills even more important.
- How does the new digital media ecosystem shape children’s perception of information?
- How can educators better prepare today’s youth for a lifetime of navigating through an ever-changing cyberspace?
- How do social media practices and online content creation change youth’s perception of information quality?
- How do online activities enrich students’ experience in the academic context as well as develop extracurricular interests for youth?
- How do variables such as socio-economic status, gender, peer influences, and prior experience affect youth’s search, evaluation, and content creation practices?
- How can educators better equip youth to search, evaluate, and verify online information?
2) Youth Engagement with News Online. The Internet has also led to both conceptual and practical shifts in how youth engage with news and current events more broadly. There seems to be a change in how young people think about news, what their news habits and preferred news sources are, how they create, share, and otherwise interact with news, and how they discover emerging news genres.
- How does the youth’s definition of news differ from the past?
- How are youth obtaining, evaluating, and interpreting (via mash-ups, online discussions, etc.) information about world events and local news?
- How has the newsreading ecosystem changed? What are the new forms of participation, access modalities, and gatekeepers?
- What are the most recent developments, trends, and emerging genres in social media practices?
3) Educating Youth Online. The emergence of new media learning platforms have allowed youth to access and take advantage of non-traditional learning environments that foster a more dynamic and interactive means of absorbing information than the traditional classroom environment of listening to lectures and regurgitating information. These new learning environments include online games (such as Minecraft and Citizen Science), collaborative virtual learning spaces (i.e. YOUMedia), and physical spaces (i.e. Quest to Learn). Students have a broader access to innovative learning and are able to find alternative means of understanding certain academic topics by engaging with their peers who share mutual interests.
- How are connected learning environments affecting the quality of information that students retain?
- How do educators quantify the effectiveness of connected learning platforms?
- Should educators rely on educational technology to encourage interactive student learning?
- How can schools properly incentivize their students to opt for technology-based learning?
- How can we prevent achievement gaps from emerging as a result of unequal access to educational media in different schools and districts?
- What are the current developments in connected learning initiatives, and what results do we see so far? What can we do to further incorporate them in schools?
- How can we ensure a regulated system of funding for connected learning?
Cortesi, S., & Gasser, U. (2015). Youth online and news: A phenomenological view on diversity. International Journal of Communication, 9. http://ijoc.org/index.php/ijoc/article/view/2761/1369
Cortesi, S., & Gasser, U. (Eds.). (2015). Digitally connected: Global perspectives on youth and digital media. http://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=2585686
Gordon, E., Baldwin-Philippi, J., & Balestra, M. (2013). Why we engage: How theories of human behavior contribute to our understanding of civic engagement in a digital era. Berkman Center Research Publication No. 21. http://ssrn.com/abstract=2343762 orhttp://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.2343762
Ito, M., Gutiérrez, K., Livingstone, S., Penuel, B., Rhodes, J., Salen, K., Schor, J., Sefton-Green, J., & Watkins, C. (2013). Connected Learning: An agenda for research and design. Irvine, CA: Digital Media and Learning Research Hub. http://dmlhub.net/wp-content/uploads/files/Connected_Learning_report.pdf
Lenhart, A. (April 2015). Teen, social media and technology overview 2015. Pew Research Center. http://www.pewinternet.org/files/2015/04/PI_TeensandTech_Update2015_0409151.pdf
Livingstone, S., Mascheroni, G., Olafsson, K., & Haddon, L. (2014). Children’s online risks and opportunities: Comparative findings from EU Kids Online and Net Children Go Mobile. http://eprints.lse.ac.uk/60513/1/__lse.ac.uk_storage_LIBRARY_Secondary_libfile_shared_repository_Content_EU%20Kids%20Online_EU%20Kids%20Online-Children%27s%20online%20risks_2014.pdf
Palfrey, J. & Gasser, U. (2008). Born digital: Understanding the first generation of Digital Natives. New York: Basic Books. http://borndigitalbook.com/
Willemse, I., Waller, G., Genner, S., Suter, L., Oppliger, S., Huber, Anna-Lena, & Suess, D. (2014). Jugend, Aktivitäten, Medien – Erhebung Schweiz, Zürich, ZHAW Zürcher Hochschule für Angewandte Wissenschaften. http://www.zhaw.ch/fileadmin/user_upload/psychologie/Downloads/Forschung/JAMES/JAMES_2015/Ergebnisbericht_JAMES_2014.pdf