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Research Summary 2: Social Network Services

social network graph


The ubiquity of social network service (SNS) usage amongst adolescent students is changing the way in which teens communicate, socialise and construct their social identity. Further, the new forms that social spaces have taken have changed the set of skills that teens develop in the course of their daily lives. This has enormous implications for educators at many levels, as students and curricula demands are both changing.

In this essay I will provide a brief overview of research into teen use of social network services.  I have also identified two areas of particular interest,  namely; the role of SNS in teen social identity formation; and informal learning opportunities through SNS.

Overview of teen SNS use in Australia

An outline of recent Australian research into teen usage of SNS is appropriate as it sets the scene for the following analysis. Further, the understanding of teen SNS use patterns portrayed in the media, web and some research is often based on perceptions and sweeping generalisations rather than solid data. The Australian Communication and Media Authority’s report (ACMA, 2009) provides a snapshot of SNS use based on survey data from 819 Australian students aged between eight and seventeen years old, and their parents. Survey data were collected during November 2008 adding timeliness to the other strengths of the research; wide scope; rigor and relevance.

The generalisation, that all teens are using SNS is defensible, as nine out of ten teens (12-17 y.o.) reporting usage. By late teens, the phenomenon is near ubiquitous with 97% of 16-17 year olds using at least one service. In this same age bracket, total site usage (a measure which incorporates both participation levels and the number of profiles per student) is 266%, indicative that teen usage is pervasive and extensive (ACMA, 2009), a statistic which demands attention from educators (and clearly, social researchers).

The motivations for teen (12-17 y.o.) SNS usage found by ACMA (2009), are revealing. Teens cite their principal reason for using social network services to be to socialising with friends they already know (85% cite reasons explicitly mentioning known friends). A small fraction of teens (4%) report that ‘making new friends’ is their primary motivation (with a further 13% citing this as a secondary or tertiary motive)(ACMA, 2009). This finding is clear yet runs against the common perception of SNS, particular the emotive ‘stranger danger’ fear-mongering employed by certain media outlets. This is a misconception of SNS. As Danah Boyd put it, SNS is about

“marking and relating to the people you already knew. They weren’t about social network-ing, (and that’s actually where I think the media’s confused a lot of things). They are social network sites. They are a place where you actually build and model your social network, not where you engage in  network-ing. The goal isn’t meeting people: The goal is socialising.” (punctuation and italics added to reflect emphasis in oral delivery) (Boyd, 2007a)

A further result of note is the rate of uptake of privacy settings amongst teens (12-17y.o.).  A majority (69%) of teens make use of private settings on social network services, leaving 24% who do not and 7% who are unsure (ACMA, 2009). Whether this warrants the 77% of parents (ACMA, 2009) who claim to worry about their children’s information being in the public domain is a question for parents, yet the disparity between these statistics is interesting and perhaps indicative of a lack of clear communication and guidance on these issues (though this is merely speculation, the report offers no explanation).

Social Identity Construction

So why is hanging out with friends (that you already see at school all day) so important? Danah Boyd is a key researcher in the field and I (along with many other researchers) will follow her lead on this issue. Boyd’s argument centres on the development of social skills, clearly a hugely important domain of learning, yet one that is not always prominent in curricula.

“Helping children develop social skills is viewed as a reasonable educational endeavor in elementary school, but by high school, educators switch to more “serious” subjects. Yet, youth aren’t done learning about the social world.” (Boyd, 2009).

Further, argues Boyd, the level of structure imposed on modern teen life precludes any unstructured socialising and this has seen the death of public spaces where teens can simply ‘hang-out’. Teens are using social network services to provide an important public social space where much informal learning is done. As such, SNS are hugely important, providing an environment where teens can experiement, make social mistakes and learn from those of others; ultimately playing an importnat role in teen social identity formation.

Social researchers (such as Boyd) and those in advertising (eg. Gangadharbatla, 2008) have realised the importance of SNS in teen identity formation. Advertisers use this knowledge when marketing to teens, as they will readily uptake products if they can help teens work out who they are and proclaim their identity (MacPhearson, 2007). Educators could learn valuable lessons when attempting a foray into SNS for formal learning. Tasks should be designed to align with existing teen SNS usage such that they encourage self expression, social collaboration and strengthening self identity, motivating students to engage with the task.

A brief aside. It was a comment in a recent Australian report on ICT access for marginalised youth (Blanchard, Metcalf, & Burns, 2007) that first got me interested in this topic (whilst researching for my previous summary – see relevant post). Whilst SNS is important in social identity formation for the majority of teens, those without access at home (an thus subject to filtered internet access at school) are further marginalised and do not have this opportunity: Yet another manifestation of the digital divide. Perhaps schools should reconsider their motives for filtering internet content.

Informal learning and pedagogical implications of SNS

Teens develop valuable skills through their online experiences (just as with those offline), an example of informal learning. That these skills are valuable and highly relevant to contemporary society is indubitable. Skills that digital natives bring to school include collaborative problem solving, collaborative research and authoring, advanced communication skills and teamwork skills. These skills are brought to school, yet they may not be used within the confines of a traditional classroom or curriculum.

In her recent monograph, Kathryn Moyle (2010) states that;

“the ubiquity of several technologies, and the robustness of young people’s abilities to communicate and collaborate, presents challenges for educators and stakeholders about how they conceive of schools. Indeed, it is time to reconsider what is a school and in what ways it can best fulfil its roles.” (p.39)

Moyle argues that the challenge for educators is to design formal learning tasks such that students can further develop and apply web-learnt skills in new settings. This is no small feat, yet the problem is not entirely new. The presence of general, interdisciplinary skills in modern curricula such as the ACT’s Every Chance to Learn curriculum framework (ACT Government, 2007), require teachers to design tasks and content to facilitate the transfer of general capabilities across discipline boundaries (Moyle, 2010). How, for example, can we expect students to apply their informal learning of collaborative, project-based problem solving skills learned from playing MMOG in the classroom? Boyd (2007b) suggest that a bi-directional approach to learning is required in this context and that teachers should not be afraid to learn from students such that we can better support them.

In my opinion, this problem demands a democratic approach to curriculum implementation such that students have input into how and what they learn. This must be coupled with an increased focus on meta-cognition, affording a reflective insight into the skills teens are using in their infromal, online learning. The rich task model (Education Queensland, 2001) could be used in this context to engage students to extend their interdisciplinary skills, whilst meeting disciplinary requirements.

Conclusions

Australian teens are heavy users of social network services. Through their online interactions, teens are not only learning in ways they currently do not at school but further, shaping their identities. To dismiss SNS as trivial or a passing fad would be both ignorant and a missed opportunity of enormous proportions. As educators, we must at the very least, give this media the respect and thought it deserves: At best, this is an opportunity to learn from our students, to rethink curriculum, and launch into a new pedagogy which re-engages our youth.


References

(ACMA, 2009)
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