We hear a lot about the dangers of online worlds for young kids. We create laws (COPPA) to restrict access to social networking and other sites for the very youngest kids. We insert monitors and filters on sites designed for young kids. But what do we actually know about youth and social media? After all, all but a tiny handful of studies of online worlds exclude children under age 12 in their surveys, and most surveys use overly narrow definitions of what online social networking is.
So are we jumping to conclusions here?
Experts Deborah A. Fields and Sara M. Grimes are working with the Joan Ganz Cooney Center to remedy this lack of research. Earlier this month, the center released “Taking a Closer Look at Kids Online: Opportunities and Challenges in Social Networking Forums” (pdf) as a first step in setting a smarter research agenda.
Looking back on the studies that have been done on teens and social media, the first thing the duo realized is that when it comes to kids under age 8 and their online experiences, we just might be looking in all the wrong places. As a result, we are likely missing some important insights about the online opportunities (and pitfalls) for the under-8 set.
Researchers, they argue, “must establish a broader, more inclusive understanding of online social networking that relates to younger kids.”
As a starter, researchers must look beyond the traditional social networking sites like Facebook or even the kid-centric site, Everloop, and include what they call “social networking forums.” These encompass virtual worlds, project-sharing sites, and online games, among others. According to Fields and Grimes, these forums also include various platforms and technologies that span across all genres.
In addition, young kids have different developmental needs at different stages. Therefore, future research should ask, among other things, what kinds of relationships children are pursuing in these sites, or how does their participation differ from teens?
“We cannot assume that children use social networking forums in the same way as teens or young adults,” explained the authors. “Children are at a much different stage of development cognitively and socially than their older counterparts and often have different influences at home and school that may affect their participation in social networking forums.”
Parental involvement is also an important aspect among this age group, and their roles in encouraging or dissuading their young kids should be included. Most important, studies should ask young kids themselves about their experiences. How do kids describe their social experiences online? Which sites do they prefer for connecting with their friends, or their other family members? What prevents them from participating?
Most interesting is their call for more research on the adults who design, manage, and regulate social networking forums for kids under age 8. As the authors write:
We need to connect industry/developer perspectives with parents’ and children’s perspectives on questions of privacy, consent and freedom of speech, authorship and transfer of ownership, as well as the idea of children having special needs and vulnerabilities which demand a particular balance between safety and rights—something that has not yet been adequately addressed.
The results can flow both ways. Far too many app developers and “edtech” designers are missing the opportunity to build really smart, developmentally appropriate products for the youngest kids because there’s a dearth of research on what “quality” looks like for different ages.
We can also, the authors stress, learn from well-designed sites.
There are numerous opportunities for learning in sites that are designed well. This includes opportunities for sharing creations, getting feedback on writing, collaborating, sharing knowledge, developing literacies for reading not just printed text on a page but visual images, hyperlinked information, and the very makings of computers (i.e., computational literacy).
In the end, the authors are issuing a rather provocative—at least given current thinking—but surely needed challenge “to broaden the scope about who and what we talk about when we talk about kids and social networking forums.” (Cheever anyone?)
If we are to build a “truly in-depth and comprehensive understanding of kids and online social networking,” they argue, we have to dig deeper and more thoughtfully into the online worlds of kids under age 9.