The Digital Media and Learning Initiative
Contextualizing New Digital Media and Youth Practices
The MacArthur Foundation’s Digital Media and Learning Initiative sponsored a convening of researchers that focused on the role of digital media in young people’s lives. Hosted at the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation in Princeton, New Jersey, the December 10, 2009, meeting brought together researchers from a variety of disciplines and research methodologies who share a common interest in the changes over time in youth’s interests, experiences, and development that appear to be associated with their digital media practices.
The meeting gave researchers the opportunity to share their research and reflections on the ways in which digital media may be reshaping various aspects of young people’s lives. In the realm of youth’s social lives, they discussed the positive and negative effects of digital media on youth’s developing sense of self and interpersonal relationships. In the realm of youth’s civic lives, digital media’s influence on youth’s civic literacy and public participation was explored. While it was recognized that young people may not themselves distinguish between the social and civic realms, the participants honor here the traditional distinction between the social and the civic spheres. Different opportunities and challenges arise when one assumes the role of friend as opposed to the role of citizen.
Perhaps the most intriguing outcome of the meeting was the realization that, despite the participants' different disciplinary backgrounds and research agendas, they arrived at many of the same conclusions with respect to the potentials and perils associated with young people’s digital media activities. At the same time, an important shift in the thinking on this topic occurred during the course of the day’s discussions. Upon laying out both the promises and perils of youth’s online engagements, the group started to explore how it might use the promises to address the perils. For instance, it was considered how to increase youth participation in interest-driven networks as a means to reverse the trend of declining youth civic engagement. Educational initiatives such as Nichole Pinkard’s Digital Youth Network, an after-school program in Chicago, and Katie Salen’s Quest to Learn school in New York City struck the group as promising interventions.
Towards the end of the meeting, Dr. Howard Gardner asked participants to consider, as a result of the day’s exchanges, what policy recommendations they would offer. Dr. Arthur Levine felt attendees had not made sufficient progress in their research to enter the policy arena at this time. Indeed, all recognized several areas where knowledge is still lacking, such as the connection between participatory culture and participatory democracy and the extent to which the changes that are being observed in youth are developmental versus generational. Such areas of inquiry require attention if there is to be success in marshaling the positive aspects of digital media to surmount the negative. In addition, further research will allow identification of those aspects of youth’s digital media practices that follow common historical patterns of moral panic and those aspects that represent a true historical turning point. In the case of the former, history can provide insight and guidance. In the case of the latter, however, new strategies need to be invented for supporting youth development in this digital era.
To this end, Dr. Levine suggested that efforts would be better spent if participants were to continue with their research agendas and draw on emerging knowledge to intervene in the realm of practice. Acknowledging the merits of this argument, some researchers nevertheless felt that they have important knowledge to share with policymakers right now, for instance, the merits of creating partnerships among different constituencies, such as corporations, educators, parents, and researchers; providing youth with adult and peer supports to help guide them in their online activities; and lowering the age at which media literacy and digital ethics are introduced into the school curriculum. Without such empirically-supported proposals, an important voice will be missing as legislators make decisions that will shape how youth encounter and engage with digital media.
This text is slightly modified from a report on the convening prepared by Katie Davis, along with her colleagues at Project Zero, Howard Gardner, Carrie James, and Margaret Weigel. She also received feedback from other attendees of the convening, Morgan Arenson, Diane Dean, Heather Horst, Arthur Levine, Paul Starr, and Celka Straughn.