"Kids' Informal Learning with Digital Media: An Ethnographic Investigation of Innovative Knowledge Cultures" is a three-year collaborative project funded by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation. Carried out by researchers at the University of Southern California and University of California, Berkeley, the digital youth project explores how kids use digital media in their everyday lives. Read more
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I had just finished giving a talk about youth culture to a room full of professionals who worked in the retail industry when a woman raised her hand to tell me a story. It was homecoming season and her daughter Mary was going to go to homecoming for the first time. What fascinated this mother was that her daughter's approach to shopping was completely different than her own.
Using Google and a variety of online shopping sites, Mary researched dresses online, getting a sense for what styles she liked and reading information about what was considered stylish that year. Next, Mary and her friends went to the local department store as a small group, toting along their digital cameras (even though they're banned). They tried on the dresses, taking pictures of each other in the ones that fit. Upon returning home, Mary uploaded the photos to her Facebook and asked her broader group of friends to comment on which they liked the best. Based on this feedback, she decided which dress to purchase, but didn't tell anyone because she wanted her choice to be a surprise. Rather than returning to the store, Mary purchased the same dress online at a cheaper price based on the information on the tag that she had written down when she initially saw the dress. She went for the cheaper option because her mother had given her a set budget for homecoming shopping; this allowed her to spend the rest on accessories.
Mary's mother was completely flabbergasted by the way in which her daughter moved seamlessly between the digital and physical worlds to consume clothing. More confusing to this mother, a professional in retail, was the way in which her daughter viewed her steps as completely natural.
In the 1980s, Alan Kay declared that, "technology is anything that wasn't around when you were born." In other words, what is perceived as technology to adults is often ubiquitous if not invisible to youth. In telling this story, Mary's mother was perplexed by the technology choices made by her daughter. Yet, most likely, Mary saw her steps in a practical way: research, test out, get feedback, purchase. Her choices were to maximize her options, make a choice that would be socially accepted, and purchase the dress at the cheapest price. Her steps were not about maximizing technology, but about using it to optimize what she did care about.
Examining e-commerce, many businesses have found that people use online sources to research what it is that they want to buy. Few people purchase cars online, but many more research their options there. Online shopping sites are assumed to support offline purchasing. Yet, for Mary and other teens that I've met, the opposite is also true: they are visiting stores to research what they want so that they can purchase it online at a cheaper venue. The stores allow them to touch, feel, and try on material goods, while the digital world helps them find the cheapest option without running from store to store.
Teens' interest in shopping is not simply about consuming material goods. For many, sites of consumerism are the only venues available for hanging out with friends. Malls, outlets, and box stores regularly emerged as places where teens could meet each other to hang out. Because security often shoos teens who are loitering away, they get into the habit of window shopping, fondling items for sale as though they may purchase them, and trying on clothes just so that they can appear to be at the shop for a reason. When they have money, they often do buy something, but most teens who hang out in shopping venues have nothing to spend - they simply want a place to hang out with their friends.
Teens who spend a lot of time hanging out around shopping spaces begin to know what each store is selling and have a sense of how often they update their inventory. As Nick (16) explained, "we'll go in the hat store and look at different kind of hats they got. It's a lot to do, but sometimes it gets boring 'cause if you go there enough, you start, 'Oh, I saw that last week. They got the same stuff.' Sometimes it's really boring to go in there and you see the same stuff over, and over, and over again." New inventory makes the "task" of window shopping much more interesting.
While shopping to hang out is a popular American teen past time, it also has a reputation amongst some parents for being a venue for troubled kids to gather. In talking with parents, I often heard references to drugs, alcohol, cigarettes, gangs, and "the wrong crowd" as reasons for why they did not allow their children to hang out at the local mall. After intense amounts of pressure from her daughter, one mother did begin allowing her 14-year old to go with her friends to an outdoor mall under one condition: she would sit in Starbucks and her daughter would have to check in every 20 minutes. Not surprisingly, the daughter was not thrilled, but consented because it was her only option. Still, many parents refuse to let their kids go to the mall to hang out.
Teens do lie to their parents to get around this restriction. One girl told me that she and her friends had their parents drop them off at the movie theater adjacent to the mall. She would research the movie ahead of time so that she could report back afterwards. She would walk into the theater with her friends and wait until her parents left before going to the mall to meet up with others who had less restrictive parents. She would make sure to be back at the theater before the movie finished. This practice is not new to this generation, but it still highlights how critical shopping venues are for social gatherings.
Online shops do not have the same hangout appeal and the majority of teens that I've met who visit them do so with a purpose. They go to buy something specific and usually with their parents consent because of the credit card requirements. Online shopping is primarily task-centric, while offline shopping is primarily social-centric.
All the same, some teens still value consumption as an end in itself. As Shean (17) explained, "I want to get my own job and start my own stuff and make my own money, a lot of it, so that I can buy whatever I want. I want to be one of those people that can just walk in and say I want that and that and that." To Shean, all that matters is having the stuff because that's what it means to "live luxurious."
When it comes to teen culture, consumerism is still rampant, although shopping is primarily about socialization. Aside from how the mobile phone allows groups to coordinate, technology is not really altering the tradition of hanging out in consumer places. What it is altering is the ways in which teens research and purchase things that they know they want.