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Internet not the child-devouring swamp many adults fear

A three-year research project, headed by Mimi Ito, involving 28 researchers and 800 subjects, and sponsored by the MacArthur Foundation, finds that the stereotypical idea of the Internet as a soul-devouring, anti-social wasteland for our kids is just plain wrong. If you suspected otherwise, now you know you were right.

The report makes a key distinction that helps explain some of the confusion we’ve been living through. From the press release:

The researchers identified two distinctive 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 local peer group.

Here’s one interesting observation, from the overview:

Some youth “geek out” and dive into a topic or talent. Contrary to popular images, geeking out is highly social and engaged, although usually not driven primarily by local friendships. Youth turn instead to specialized knowledge groups of both teens and adults from around the country or world, with the goal of improving their craft and gaining reputation among expert peers. While adults participate, they are not automatically the resident experts by virtue of their age. Geeking out in many respects erases the traditional markers of status and authority.

The study’s implications for education are significant. From the overview:

Youths’ participation in this networked world suggests new ways of thinking about the role of education. What, the authors ask, would it mean to really exploit the potential of the learning opportunities available through online resources and networks? What would it mean to reach beyond traditional education and civic institutions and enlist the help of others in young people’s learning? Rather than assuming that education is primarily about preparing for jobs and careers, they question what it would mean to think of it as a process guiding youths’ participation in public life more generally.

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