This is second post in a series related to the content in my upcoming book, Digital and Media Literacy in the Age of the Internet: Practical Classroom Applications.

One thing that I have learned from working with young people in a technology classroom for the last decade is that we both overestimate and underestimate the judgement and expertise of young people when it comes to technology.

For all of the grumbling that adults do over how “addicted” young people are to their devices, we seem to forget the hours we spent with a telephone stuck to our ears in our own youth, or the times we snuck out of the house to hang out with a friend or when our parents dropped us off at the movie theater or mall so we could just be with our friends, even if we never actually saw a movie or shopped at all.

Hanging Out….Online

As researcher, danah boyd (lowercase letters are intentional), has found in her extensive conversations with young people about their use of social media, the addiction is often to each other, not the technology itself. Technology facilitates connecting with friends and “hanging out” in a way that we could only have imagined twenty years ago when the Internet was first entering homes on widespread scale. In fact, fewer kids are actually hanging out face to face, opting instead for virtual conversations through technology either by choice or due to their parent’s protective nature and desire for them to be supervised at all times.

Young people have built their own social networks in this virtual playground that are very real and that we, as adults, should not minimize or discredit. When I asked my 9th graders this year to stand on a side of the room to show me whether they thought SnapChat “sucked” or “rocked,” there were only 3-4 students who still used the app. If I had asked this question two years ago, the opposite would have been true. When I asked my students why they don’t use it, they explained that their friends weren’t on SnapChat, so they saw no real value in it. (My next conversation will be about their use of Tik Tok, which has skyrocketed in popularity over the last year.)

Living Curated Lives

Still, living in these online networks is not always easy. Young people are constantly curating their lives and keeping an audience in mind. They are very sensitive to the approval of their peers and will obsess over “likes” and affirmation from their peers. In fact, they will even take down a post and re-post it if it doesn’t garner the amount of likes they were hoping it would. In addition, as we discuss in my freshman Technology class, they often have an offline and online persona that can be very different. When we discuss this, they explain how important they think it is that people are genuine, while also admitting, for instance, that they love to put filters on their images before they post them so they look “better.” They also grasp the idea that sometimes it’s OK to be someone different online if it allows you to be who you really are, especially if who you really are is not accepted by the community in which you live.

However, managing multiple personas online, as some kids do, can become stressful, and my students agree that there is anxiety tied to trying to constantly put yourself out there and live up to an expectation that you have set for others. Still, these online communities that kids live in bring them a feeling of belonging and camaraderie that all young people seek, and that existed long before the Internet came along, and that feeling of affirmation matters, no matter how it is given.

The Myth of the Digital Native

The one way in which we sometimes overestimate our young people is in their skills and understanding of how the technology they use on a regular basis works. As I wrote in the first part of this series, very few, if any of my students actually understand how the Internet works (to be fair, most people don’t), and when they get their Chromebooks and we do an introductory scavenger hunt of keyboard shortcuts like copy/paste, and important settings on their machine, many are learning it for the first time.

So, while our students are immersed in online communities and understand and navigate the complexities of connecting online, this does not inherently make them digitally literate. It also is important that, just as we help our children navigate the bully on the playground, or a fight with a best friend, or being left out from a social event, that we also help them navigate these things when they are happening online.

Lastly, as adults, we need to look in the mirror when begin to judge young people’s use of technology. According to a March 2019 Pew Research study, 59% of adults say that they feel obligated to respond to a message right away on their phone. Adults will answer text messages at the dinner table, and I know I am guilty of judging parents who are checking social media instead of watching or playing with their kids at the park. We are role models for our students and our children, so we have to model the behavior we want to see.

The next installment in the series will address online privacy concerns that can leak into the classroom and what teachers should know and consider when it comes to their students’ privacy and their own privacy.

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