In Tamar Lewin's report on a MacArthur Foundation study of Internet socializing, we learn that kids today know how to use the Internet, like, really really well.
After promising "good news for worried parents" in her lede, Lewin concedes -- in the third paragraph -- that "the study, conducted from 2005 to last summer, describes new-media usage but does not measure its effects." Well, if they didn't measure its effects, then how do they know parents have nothing to worry about?
But the study's author does offer this conclusion from the research: kids who use the Internet seem to know more about how to use the Internet than kids once did.
“It may look as though kids are wasting a lot of time hanging out with new media, whether it’s on MySpace or sending instant messages,” said Mizuko Ito, lead researcher on the study, “Living and Learning With New Media.” “But their participation is giving them the technological skills and literacy they need to succeed in the contemporary world. They’re learning how to get along with others, how to manage a public identity, how to create a home page.”
And what about those pesky parents? According to the $50 million study, their attempts to control their kids' use of the Internet don't work any better than the Cleavers' efforts to clamp down on misbehavior by Wally and the Beaver.
Because of the adult sense that socializing on the Internet is a waste of time, the study said, teenagers reported many rules and restrictions on their electronic hanging out, but most found ways to work around such barriers that let them stay in touch with their friends steadily throughout the day.
Ito even goes so far as to speculate that based on her observations -- Ito's researchers interviewed "more than 800 students and their parents" -- fears of predators and other dangers are "overblown." And how does she know that? Lewin doesn't let on, but hey -- it's the MacArthur Foundation. They're geniuses, kinda.
Anyway, Lewin tries to back up the study by going to a Bronx classroom to confirm the "findings." Remarkably, no one confesses to her that they are "obsessed" with the Internet.
So how does Lewin learn so much from a study that offers no specific information about the impact of the Internet? She turns to experts, of course. And they tell her that the theory sounds pretty reasonable to them.
“It certainly rings true that new media are inextricably woven into young people’s lives,” said Vicki Rideout, vice president of the Kaiser Family Foundation and director of its program for the study of media and health. “Ethnographic studies like this are good at describing how young people fit social media into their lives. What they can’t do is document effects. This highlights the need for larger, nationally representative studies.”
It rings true! That sounds pretty scientific.
But Rideout's right about one thing. The study highlights the need for more study. And Lewin's article highlights the need for less dependence by journalists on studies that reveal nothing.