A recent report from the Joan Ganz Cooney Center, Kids Online: A new research agenda for understanding social networking forums, has identified that we don’t actually know enough about how pre-teens use online social networking. The researchers, Dr. Sarah Grime and Dr. Deborah Fields, have done a good job in helping us recognize that younger children are engaged in a range of different ways with online social networks, but that our knowledge and understanding of what that means and how it impacts on their lives is pretty much underdone. GeekDads, of course, will have thoughts about how and why our children are playing and engaging with technology and networks in the ways they do, but this doesn’t give the people who make the rules and set the policy agendas the big picture that they need.
Essentially, Kids Online is a research report that calls for more research into children’s use of social networks. But the report does demonstrate very clearly why this is required. And at the rate that technology is changing and advancing, we need to work cleverly if we are to have the type of data and analysis that we need as parents to guide our decision making around technology and our children. We are all out there trying our best to facilitate healthy, dynamic, educational and exciting experiences for our children when it comes to tech, but there are not enough people exploring what that looks like. As the report says:
“Research on Internet use in the home has consistently demonstrated that family dynamics play a crucial role in children’s and parents’ activities and experiences online. We need further research on the role of parental limits, rules, and restrictions on children’s social networking as well as how families, siblings, peers, and schools influence children’s online social networking.”
I would go further: we need more research of how people of all ages navigate social networks. This doesn’t mean just looking at what activities users participate in online, how often they update information, or how many or what kinds of friends they have. These pieces of information give an outline of social network site usage. However, we need more comprehensive views how exactly social interaction online works, develops, and interacts in feedback loops with the offline and online worlds.
Let me give an example. Suppose an eleven year old joins Facebook. What happens then? Sure, they gain friends and develop a profile but how does this change and develop over the first days, weeks, and months? How does the eleven year old describe the process of social interaction? How do their friends, online and offline, describe this interaction? Where do they learn how to act and not act on Facebook? Do the social networks online overlap completely with offline networks and if so or if not, how does this affect the offline network? How does the eleven year old start seeing all social interaction differently? Does it change their interaction patterns for years to come or can they somewhat compartmentalize the Facebook experience?
This sort of research would take a lot of time and would be difficult to do with large groups. To do it well, a researcher would have two options: an ethnographic approach or to gain access to the keys to someone’s Facebook account to be able to observe everything that happens. Of course, Facebook itself could provide this information…