Jan Schmidt, a hard blogging scientist, is a sociologist who has been looking at the impact and use of social media for a long time. I met him for the first time on the second ever BlogWalk in Nuremberg in 2004, the series of salons on social media that I used to organize with Lilia Efimova and Sebastian Fiedler.
On Next09 he presented findings from a 15 month study concluded only earlier this month, on social media behaviour of teenagers and adolescents. Given the nature of other presentations at Next09 Jan’s session seemed perhaps somewhat misplaced in the general flow of the conference, but I was glad it was part of the programme anyway. Especially as the results presented are very useful to me, and also seem to fit well with research I did myself into media behaviour of children in an age group just before the age groups Schmidt et al looked at.
The research project combined both quantitative and qualitative (focus groups, interviews) elements, allowing for a rich tapestry of results. (Project site in German, 20 page summary pdf in German)
An interesting starting point of Jan Schmidt’s presentations was the reason he thought the social web is a good fit with teenagers. The three practices that social media actively embrace match up with three important developmental aspects teenagers grapple with. Identity management (status updates, profiles, publishing vids) relates to the task of the development of self (who am I?), relationship management (friending online, commenting, following) chimes with the development of socialization (who/where am I in groups?), and information management (searching, tagging, rating) matches up with the developmental task of general orientation (who am I in the world?)
Among German youngsters Google, YouTube, Wikipedia and ICQ are the most widely used. (ICQ is the IM of choice in Germany, MSN is what the kids in the Netherlands use. I once heard a Dutch girl on the train explain to a friend that her German boyfriend used ICQ, calling it ‘the German MSN’.) Facebook is largely unheard of (ranking under 2% together with Second Life) under German young people, as they use StudiVZ, for students, and SchulerVZ, for high school kids, which combined cover 85%.
About 3/4 of those asked use social networking sites (matching nicely with 70% here in the Netherlands). Young people aren’t confused by the term ‘friend’, as most press coverage seems to always find problematic. Mostly they connect to people they have met face to face at some point, and mostly they do not think those contacts constitute close friendships. In short they know it’s a map and not the landscape. Schmidt concludes, one that I share and find important, that social networking sites make weak ties explicit. I would add that as these teenagers get older, it also preserves context, allowing you to keep in touch where normally you would drift apart as you move into different contexts. Jan Schmidt also holds that this makes a perfect training ground for teenage networking and social skills. During that discovery of networking skills slightly over a quarter of those asked say they encountered problematic usage (like bullying etc.), and 5% (girls) to 10% (boys) say they’ve done things on-line others protested against.
Schmidt also reported on the channels teenagers say they find appropiate for things like arranging meetings, flirting, chatting, meeting new people and breaking up. Ian Forrester of the BBC indicated during the Q&A that they got very different results when asking about actual behaviour. But to me this was interesting because it gives us a picture of the normative behaviour of these teenagers. And the conclusion is that, except (unsurprisingly) arranging meetings, face to face contact is still very much the norm, followed by synchronous communication such as phone and IM at increasing distance (and that snail mail has no future at all).
I find this significant, as it shows us digital media have become part of our daily diet, but at the same time there is no significant shift in values and norms it seems between them and our generations when it comes to human interaction. Behaviour is changing, but normative behaviour is not, and direct human face to face contact is still on top. It flies in the face of fear mongering adults thinking kids these days isolate themselves behind their screens and can’t see the difference between real and fake contact. That fear is something those adults project on their kids, and more a reflection of not wanting to deal with the new skills involved themselves, a case of monster killing. In reality new media channels mean primarily there are more options to communicate when face to face is not possible or not practical.
That social media have become a normal part of every day teenage life is further proven by the observation that terms like social media and Web2.0 are largely unknown to these age groups. Again these are terms we have made up to describe the difference compared to what we knew before. These kids know just this, the internet that is now. They don’t have to unlearn stuff like we do, they use what is there. Let’s stop projecting our notions on these kids, and like Schmidt et al, start observing more what they are really doing, saying and thinking. So that we can connect that to the values and notions we like to instill them with, so that we can give them an education and raising that is meaningful to them.
Disclosure: I was at the Next ’09 Conference in Hamburg on the invitation of the organizers as a blogger and did not have to pay for my conference ticket.