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How Tweens Use Digital Media to Develop Their Identities

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Flickr: JuliaKoz

The following are excerpts from from “Kids Closer Up: Playing, Learning, and Growing with Digital Media” by Lori Takeuchi, International Journal of Learning and Media, Spring 2011, Vol. 3, No. 2, Pages 37-59. To protect the children’s identities, all names are pseudonyms, and location details have been altered. Read the first post in the series: A Look Inside the Digital Lives of Tweens.

According to some scholars, digital media provide young people with the tools, spaces, and communities to develop the knowledge, skills, dispositions, and social practices needed for full participation in contemporary society as consumers, producers, and civic actors. Surely all children can learn something through their use of digital media. But some of these lessons hold greater value to their present and future lives than others.

Researcher Jackie Marsh argues that virtual worlds like Club Penguin and Webkinz can “offer young children a wide range of opportunities to decode, respond to and create multimodal texts in a playful space, significant activities in a new media age.” She postulates that reading Club Penguin’s newspaper, for example, can help foster children’s reading comprehension skills and that its chat feature provides a fun context for children to practice writing and use text to negotiate, collaborate, and evaluate. If and when more work, play, and learning activities are embedded in virtual worlds, as many predict they will be, current young members of Club Penguin and Webkinz will be prepared to navigate these spaces and communicate as members of online communities. However, whether they actually become better readers and writers—or just fall victim to the commercialized practices that operate across online and offline worlds has yet to be seen.5

From a developmental perspective, the fact that Katie is not a budding moviemaker is perhaps understandable, as is the fact that Victoria is not designing outfits on Photoshop and then uploading her creations to share with other young fashion designers online. They are just eight. Is it even realistic to expect girls of this age to participate in the artistic expression and civic engagement activities that proponents of digital media say these tools support? Do developmental reasons argue against postponing these expectations until adolescence, when the user interface of sophisticated programs like Photoshop and iMovie will make more sense, when parents are more willing to allow their children to participate in online communities, and when youth have developed better judgment about content, audience, and online safety? What about encouraging 8-year-olds to play outside with friends, siblings, and pets to develop physical coordination with real objects, rather than with virtual ones inside?

Creative expression and civic engagement using digital media may be eventual goals, but, as the two cases illustrate, technology holds a different set of opportunities for young children than it does for teenagers. In Katie’s and Victoria’s cases, I did not observe cell phones, video games, mobile devices, and online virtual worlds providing the vehicles and spaces for them to meaningfully communicate, coordinate, and negotiate with peers and relatives—at least not in the same ways these platforms are being appropriated by teenagers.

What I did witness, however, is how digital media are giving Katie and Victoria opportunities to develop identities as autonomous learners and technologically capable individuals and to try on various versions of their future selves, as fashion designers, aestheticians, and PDA-toting career women. I also got a glimpse of how Victoria uses digital tools at home to practice skills that may later serve her academically, such as reading onscreen instructions and newspapers, searching for information on the Internet, and word processing.


The two case studies illustrate that mere access to digital resources is not enough to guarantee that children will use those resources in productive and enriching ways. Parents and other family members largely shape the quality of the girls’ experiences, through deliberate acts of providing and regulating and through less conscious modeling of behaviors and attitudes that may stoke their daughters’ interests.

Read the full report, Families Matter: Designing Media for a Digital Age

But inequities exist. Katie, for example, is not receiving as much adult encouragement to visit Web sites with more onscreen text or to make use of productivity software as her best friend Victoria is. But do current disparities matter? When the girls reach age 16, will it have made any difference that when they were 8 Victoria dabbled in Microsoft Word and Windows Paint and Katie did not? Is there a reason to encourage children this young to engage with digital media in deeper ways than playing simple games alone? Or will other factors, such as school courses and adolescent sociality, level the playing field when youth reach the age at which technological fluency will have more immediate bearing on their academic success and future career choices?

What can we learn from the case studies of two little girls? Katie’s and Victoria’s family situations and cultural heritages are unique. However, most American children resemble Katie and Victoria in two regards. First, children are increasingly surrounded by, engaging with, and embracing media in both old and new forms. Katie and Victoria—like generations of little girls before them—still draw and play outside, do homework and chores, and spend time with family and friends, unmediated by screens of any sort. Rather than replacing or eliminating activities, digital media represent an additional layer of their everyday lives. Technology is part of the fabric of both homes, used by all family members for entertainment, information seeking, communication, and expression. In this way, the girls are not singled out as digital natives within a family of immigrants.

Second, any child’s particular relationship with these technologies is shaped by the people around them—parents, siblings, teachers, friends, neighbors, and so on. And these interactions are, in turn, influenced by individual maturity, family values, institutional policies, cultural norms, or a television network’s bottom line. The ecological perspectives offered by Katie’s and Victoria’s stories have made this latter point clear.

Because young children tend to engage with digital media at home, this research has focused primarily on what they are doing in this particular setting with family members. However, as Katie’s and Victoria’s stories suggest, by age 8, peers are also emerging as powerful influences—as is school, if not by providing Katie and Victoria with opportunities to learn with digital media, then through its institutional attitudes toward digital media. Other learning resources not explored in depth here—namely, books, after school and community settings, and online social networking and virtual worlds—are also important locales of interest development. Just as important is understanding how a child’s interests cross these boundaries and are strengthened and sustained over time.

According to Dr. Larry Rosen, the most recent technology trends (e.g., iPads, texting, Twitter, Facebook) are being widely adopted by consumers within a matter of years—if not months. In

comparison, the telephone, radio, and television each took decades. Because of this rapid penetration rate, children born just years apart demonstrate distinct patterns of media consumption, communication, and levels of multitasking.

Katie’s baby brother (born since my observational visits) will grow up mastering a different set of skills, habits, and dispositions around technology than his sister’s “mini-generation.” However, even as new technologies captivate young users in ever-faster cycles, the developmental capacities and predilections of children remain, for the most part, stable. By keeping their developmental characteristics in mind, adults—who are, by the logic of the mini-generation theory, the perpetual digital immigrants—should always feel empowered to know and do what is best for young children in a digital age.



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