LOL: life online, digital media and Canadian youth

LOL: life online, digital media and Canadian youth

Let me tell you a story. Back when I was growing up, I lived in a provincial park far away from civilization. To get to school and back every day I rode a school bus for 45 minutes each way. My only entertainment during my arduous travels came in the form of listening to a Discman or through participating in raucous behaviour with my peers, intended to drive the bus driver to pull her hair out. We had no iPods, no smartphones, no digital media. It was a simpler time. Sigh.

Okay, so there may have been a touch of exaggeration (but only a little bit) in my story and on the hardship scale it rates much lower than the tales of my grandparents. But there’s no denying that my reminiscence highlights the many ways digital media has changed the lifestyles of Canadian youth.

Digital media, life online for Canadian youthIn writing this digital literacy series I’ve encountered a number of examples of the ways that digital media has shrunk the globe. Nowhere is this truer than in the lives of Canadian youth. Digital media has played a role in their lives right from birth and this hyper-connected world is all they know. With this new reality comes a real ramification for parents and educators.

Social media and back-to-school

In the wake of students going back to school earlier this month, there’s been much discussion in the media about the impact social media is having on young people and education in Canada. Recent headlines indicate parents have added a number of digital media considerations to their back-to-school to-do list, including:


And the social media and back-to-school conversation isn’t just limited to traditional media and Facebook. This article offers a snapshot of the tweets students and their parents posted as they headed back to school, including photos of first-day-of-school outfits and school supplies. A quick glimpse at the #backtoschool hashtag proves that the conversation continues today.

Digital literacy and youth

The relationship between social media, digital technology and young people is an interesting one. Issues like cyberbullying, internet safety and privacy are a real concern for parents, educators and owners of corporate websites. One organization addressing such issues is MediaSmarts, a Canadian not-for-profit dedicated to developing digital and media literacy programs and resources for Canadian homes, schools and communities. Their mission is to equip Canadian kids and youth with the critical thinking skills that will allow them to engage with digital media as active and informed digital citizens.

The MediaSmarts website offers parents and educators information on topics ranging from cyberbullying and body image, to intellectual property and media and digital literacy fundamentals. Kids and teens can access interactive digital literacy educational games and there are a number of educational resources available for teachers.

What I found most interesting about the MediaSmarts site is their research and policy section, and in particular, a study from May 2012 entitled Young Canadians in a Wired World, Phase III: Talking to Youth and Parents about Life Online. This study examined the experiences and attitudes of children and youth (ages 11 – 17) and parents toward digital media. Some of the topics covered include social media monitoring by parents, schools and the marketplace, what young people get from social networking and digital technology and digital literacy and the ethical use of online content.

Here are some of the most interesting findings:

  • 11 – 12 year olds use digital media to meet their developmental needs – they use online technologies to learn more about the world and their role in it, and to explore their interests. This age group sees parental monitoring as the “price of admission”. Many are not allowed to use social networking sites unless they give their parents their password or “friend” them. They are glad their parents protect them from offensive content.
  • 13 – 14 year olds use digital media to access sites that highlight humourous situations, like people doing silly things, because it gives them a sense of belonging. This group indicated that they have participated in online petitions dealing with animal cruelty.
  • 15 – 17 year olds use digital media to stay in touch with friends, on social networking sites and through text messaging, organize events and watch YouTube videos. Teens feel that constant parental monitoring is unnecessary and rooted in paranoia. They feel confident in handling online “creeps” and almost always limit their online interactions to people they know offline.
  • Survey participants indicated that they accept monitoring of their online behaviours as a given when at school. But they expressed irritation that this monitoring is so extensive that they sometimes can’t access materials they need to complete assignments and homework.
  • Instead of being monitored for swear words and inappropriate content at school, students would like the opportunity to communicate freely and be corrected when they make a mistake. They are frustrated by what they see as micromanagement, especially when it comes to cyberbullying programs.
  • Students said they find online bullying easier to deal with than real life bullying because it leaves a digital trail. Online bullying lets them challenge the bully publicly and hold them accountable.
  • Although young people congregate on social networking sites like Facebook and YouTube, they are generally distrustful of corporations. They feel like companies are trying to trick them into providing information and their attitudes toward advertising range from ambivalent to distrustful.

Now, just imagine the tales today’s kids will tell about their childhoods when they grow up. Their digital footprints will mean they won’t have the luxury of selective memory storytelling. I can hear it now: “Grandpa, that’s not true. I just checked your old Facebook page…”

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