Page last updated at 03:40 GMT, Friday, 21 November 2008

Online time 'is good for teens'

By Maggie Shiels
Technology reporter, BBC News, Silicon Valley

MySpace page (file image)
Hanging out online develops core social skills, the report said

Surfing the internet, playing games and hanging out on social networks are important for teen development, a large study of online use has revealed.

The report counters the stereotypical view held by many parents and teachers that such activity is a waste of time.

More than 800 teenagers and parents took part in the three-year US project.

"They are learning the technological skills and literacy needed for the contemporary world," said the report's author, Dr Mimi Ito.

"They are learning how to communicate online, craft a public identity, create a home page, post links.

"All these things were regarded as sophisticated 10 years ago but young people today take them for granted," Dr Ito told the BBC.

'Geeking out'

The study, sponsored by the MacArthur Foundation, was part of a $50m (£31m) project on digital media and learning.

Over the period of the study, researchers observed users for more than 5,000 hours.

Screenshot from Second Life
Teens explored creative passions like gaming, video editing and writing

The aim of the Digital Youth Project was to provide an "ethnographical view of how children use social media to socialise, learn and relax".

Dr Ito said that connecting online with friends via social networks such as MySpace and Facebook was where teens now "hang out", compared to the usual public places like shopping malls, the street and parks.

She also said the internet provided a core group of teens the opportunity to explore their own creativity and "take a deep dive into a subject".

The report referred to this behaviour as "geeking out".

"In one of my own case studies around fans of Japanese animations, some kids got involved in different video production groups or online discussion groups.

"They picked up things like the Japanese language or some fairly esoteric knowledge around video, or coding or editing," explained Dr Ito, also a research scientist at the department of informatics at the University of California, Irvine.

Digital gap

The researchers discovered a digital divide between those who have access to the web and those who do not.

"The quality of access is what matters for some kids who have to just rely on the library and school to go online. It is often limited, has blocks put on access to certain sites and is only available when these institutions are open," said Dr Ito.

Children using mobiles, BBC
The children in the study were "always on and connected"

As for parents and teachers, she urged them to get up to speed with what children are doing on the internet, as the rapid pace of change presents challenges ranging from stranger danger to teenagers spending too long online.

"While most parents know very little about what their kids are doing online, they are struggling to give real guidance and help.

"At the more social 'hanging out' layer, young people don't want their parents or teachers on their MySpace or Facebook page. But in the interest-driven side, there is a more productive role for parents and teachers to play that will help them connect with kids and their lives, " said Dr Ito.

The MacArthur Foundation's education director, Connie Yowell, concluded that the work creates a new way to look at how young people are being taught.

"Learning today is becoming increasingly peer-based and networked, and this is important to consider as we begin to re-imagine education in the 21st century," she said.

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