Young people are not passive victims of technology or helpless drug addicts. They are technology creators and agents with varied backgrounds and interests.
When people hear that I study digital youth literacy, I’m often asked, “Is technology good or bad for kids?” My first struggle is to reframe the question. The question assumes that technology is one thing and that all children use technology in the same way. Technology is made and shaped by us and we have the power to make it good or bad. I prefer the question “How can we help young people harness technology to advance?” Young people are not passive victims of technology or helpless drug addicts. They are technology creators and agents with varied backgrounds and interests.
I’ve been studying teen technology use in Japan and the United States for nearly three decades, and I’ve seen similar intergenerational dynamics play out with each new wave of technology teens adopt and make their own. . Adults worry, teens experiment and embrace new ways of using technology, and eventually adults start to embrace the digital culture created by teens.
We celebrate the tech titans who started their empires while still in college. What is less appreciated are everyday examples of young people around the world harnessing technology in innovative, self-fulfilling and progressive ways. The optimism and creativity of young people are like solar energy – constantly renewed and largely untapped. If we can recognize their diverse needs and strengths, we can support young people as innovators, learners and agents of change.
In the late 90s, I sat on the subway and wandered the streets of Tokyo watching how teenagers used cellphones. My research team at Keio University collected detailed logs of high school students’ text messages and voice communications. They shared ideas on how they used text messages, emoji, camera phones and mobile internet. The rest of the world was skeptical of the rise of mobile internet beyond Japan. It would take nearly a decade before text messaging became widespread in the United States. I never imagined that people of all ages around the world would be communicating with emoji and smartphone photos 20 years later.
Back then, old people would shake their heads when they saw teenagers walking around texting. They labeled them nagara zoku (the multitasking tribe) and oyayubi zoku (thumb tribe). Mobile phones in the hands of teenagers have become a symbol of declining culture and social norms. Teenagers, on the other hand, were annoyed by adults who didn’t put their phones on silent and rummaged through their pockets while it rang. Ever since street-smart high school girls used pagers to send text messages to each other in the early 1990s, Japanese teenagers have been innovating in mobile communication. Japanese phone providers have capitalized on these teen innovations by creating new technologies, including various texting services, emoji, camera phones and mobile internet.
Teenagers have also created new social norms by embracing new technologies. For example, they found the old practice of making a voice call out of the blue to be pervasive. They quickly developed a new social norm of “knock before you enter”. When they wanted to talk, they first texted to check availability. Their friend may be on public transport, in class, or in another setting where a voice call will be disruptive. They recognized that simply picking up the phone and calling someone when it suited the caller was inconsiderate for the person receiving the call.
When young people experiment, mobilize and innovate, they also acquire and develop new skills. When my daughter was in middle school and high school, she was involved in online fandoms for some popular bands. She took to social media and blogs to connect with other fans and quickly amassed followers. During a particularly busy school week, we worked through time management issues together. “I think I should take a week off from blogging,” she suggested as I nodded. When I contacted her a few hours later, I saw her on her blog and started scolding her gently. “Mom,” she interrupted, with a sigh, “I line up for messages so I don’t lose subscribers the week I take off.” Somehow, she had become more adept at managing social media than her mother who considers herself a digitally savvy public intellectual.
These types of communication and networking skills are just one of the many skills that young people acquire through interest-based learning that is socially connected to technology. We call it “connected learning” when young people learn as a byproduct of researching, creating, and organizing with other enthusiasts. Whether it’s fanfiction writers creating new stories together, gamers strategizing and sharing advice, or dancers sharing and learning from online videos, online affinity groups continue to nurture learning in a social and passionate way.
When young people learn and organize together online, it’s not all fun and games. Their digital skills have fueled world-changing social movements. In college, my daughter joined the Percentage Project, which uses social media to raise awareness about the experience of underrepresented groups in computer science programs. She also helped start an online video series, Decrypted By Us, highlighting the expertise and perspectives of women and minorities in tech. After the shooting at Stoneman Douglas High School, we saw a multiracial coalition of teenagers fueling the March for Our Lives movement. The adults were stunned by their media savvy and quick feedback on politicians and critics on social media. Young people using social and mobile media have been at the heart of so many progressive movements – whether it’s Black Lives Matter, Dreamers or climate activism.
These progressive uses of technology do not happen by themselves. Behind all these positive examples are powerful platforms that allow them to connect, create and communicate. Caring adults, organizations and coalitions that have given young people the space and support to amplify their optimism and progressive potential are also essential.
Many years ago, I co-founded a non-profit organization, Connected Camps, dedicated to helping college students mentor kids through popular digital gaming platforms. We are just one of a growing legion of organizations supporting youth leadership to bring about positive change. We believe that mentorship centered on common causes and interests can change lives and the world. Whether you are a parent, educator, employer or enthusiast, we all have a role to play in building the power and potential of young people.
Dr. Mimi Itocultural anthropologist, director of the Connected Learning Lab at the University of California, Irvine