"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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Photo Credits: Ritchie Ly and Geert Allegaert.
In many ways, Lynn Milvert's use of digital media resembles that of an stereotypical 15 year old girl growing up in suburban America. She spends hours each day in her music-filled room, multitasking between social networking sites, multiple instant messaging applications, and maybe even a little homework. But Lynn is not a suburban girl--Lynn lives in the upper foothills of California’s Sierra-Nevada mountain range where she has been home schooled since 6th grade, largely with a group of other kids from her church.
Lynn’s particular form of home schooling is not conducted alone, with a parent as tutor, but instead with a group of roughly 20 kids who share a tutor and even attend “class” together for three hours three times a week. Lynn’s class consists of both boys and girls, ranging in age from 12 to 22. She considers everyone in the group to be friends with everyone else in the group. As a social structure, the group is remarkably dense and persistent. Its basic structural form has not changed since Lynn was a young child. As Lynn puts it, “Most of us have known each other all our lives.”
Her family’s participation in the local First Baptist church reinforces the group’s durable structure. While the home-school program is technically administered by a separate organization, many kids belong to both groups. The church, in turn, sponsors opportunities beyond school for the home schooled youth to get together in social settings. Every Friday the church youth group organizes a social event. Out-of-town trips are planned for roughly one weekend a month. And every Sunday afternoon the youth group holds its own session after the regular service.
In addition to the home school program and her church, Lynn’s family comprises the other main social structure in her life. Lynn’s father grew up next door to where they now live. He built their current house on a portion of what used to be a family ranch. Lynn’s grandparents, aunt, uncle, and cousin all live within walking distance. This closeness affords frequent family-based social time for Lynn. At least once a week Lynn’s family tries to have meals with members of the extended family. Almost daily Lynn goes to her grandparents to watch satellite TV. And, during the summer, she babysits her infant cousin between roughly 9AM and 5PM four days a week.
These interwoven social structures -- family, church, school -- frame Lynn’s participation with digital media. Like many teenagers, her favorite digital technology is a social networking site. But unlike most teenagers, she chose Bebo instead of MySpace. She perceives it as “safer.” And unlike some teens, she doesn’t use social networking and instant messaging to build new relationships. Instead, she uses them to participate in her existing peer-group. Her friends on Bebo match her densely interconnected friends from school and church almost exactly.
Contrasting the dense structure of Lynn’s social network is the geographical dispersion of homes in her neighborhood. Being an “up-the-hill” family means much greater distance between homes; in most cases, it is not possible to walk or bike to the house of a friend. This is particularly true in the snowy winter months. Without a driver’s license, Lynn’s collocated social activity with peers either requires routine, formalized group activities -- such as school, sports practice, work and church -- or, convincing a parent, or other older person, to transport them to a common location. In both scenarios, spontaneous collocated peer gatherings are difficult to achieve.
These constraints lead Lynn to spend a good deal of time at home. As a social space defined by her parents, home has been a place for family and, occasionally, planned socializing with friends. On the Internet, Lynn finds ways to redefine the social possibilities of time spent in the home, beyond family, beyond planned sociability, and towards unplanned peer-based social activity. This technological reach out of the home is not directed towards distant, unfamiliar, or dangerous worlds on the Internet; rather, it hones towards a well established group of friends. This dense friend group places each individual member in a uniquely central position, a position that contrasts with the geographic dispersion of their homes and neighborhoods, a position in stark relief with their marginal relation to the community that organizes around the public high school down-the-hill. It is an inversion of geographic and social isolation, a counterpoint to their perception of being situated “in the middle of nowhere.”