The Young and the Digital: Interview with S. Craig Watkins, Part I

Friday, February 25, 2011 at 4:09 pm



This post is part of a series of interviews highlighting leaders in the field of New Learning (what we call “NLI at Inquiry”). Recently, we interviewed Professor S. Craig Watkins of the University of Texas at Austin on subjects including social media in different contexts, the participation gap, the quality and consequences of young people’s media engagement, and the future of social media. Here, in Part I of the interview, he discusses his current research.


S. Craig Watkins teaches in the departments of Radio-Television-Film and Sociology and the Center for African and African American Studies at the University of Texas at Austin. Currently, Professor Watkins is launching a new digital media research initiative that focuses on the use and evolution of social media platforms, and he will also be participating in a MacArthur Foundation research network studying diverse communities of young people and their engagement with digital media. For
updates on these and other projects, visit http://theyoungandthedigital.com.
 
Professor Watkins, please tell us about your current research.

In general, my research focuses on the relationship between young people and technology, in particular their engagement with social, digital, and mobile media platforms. I’ve spent a great deal of time looking at young people’s engagement with technology, primarily in informal learning environments and ecologies. For example, we are asking what kids are doing with mobile and social media outside of formal learning environments, particularly the classroom, and how they have created very vibrant expressions of culture, identity, and community.
We’re still looking at those kinds of things, but we’re also beginning to think about the ways in which schools are beginning to now integrate social, mobile, and digital media platforms into the classroom, and we’re beginning to think about how technology can be used to engage students more effectively; at how technology can be used to create a much more dynamic relationship between teachers and students, students and their peers. So we’re really beginning to think about how what has been happening for years now outside formal learning environments like schools — particularly kids’ dynamic engagement with technology — [is] beginning to influence and impact the kinds of things that educators are doing inside the classroom.
We just finished a big Facebook study. That study basically was a national survey of young adults, looking at the evolution of their social media behaviors — thinking about how, as they transition from one stage in the youth life cycle to another stage, their engagement with social media evolves. In particular, we focused a lot of the survey questions around Facebook.
 
What were some of the results you found interesting from the Facebook study?
 
We did the Facebook study for a couple of reasons primarily. We knew, based on some of the earlier research we had conducted, that engagement with social media is a constant process of evolution. In other words, I think there is a tendency to think that how a teenager uses social media is a predictor of how they will use social media as they get older. We saw early on in our research evidence that ran counter to that. In fact, as people move through their life cycles, as they transition from one stage of life to the next stage, how they use social media, why they use social media, what social media means to them — it evolves, it changes. And so we wanted to conduct a survey that began to empirically identify and document some of those changes.
 
Real quickly, the survey is split into two large groups in terms of the sample: of the total participants (about 905), about one half of the survey is made of current college students, the other half is made up of recent college graduates (people who have been out of college since 2005). We knew that, in all likelihood, just that window alone — the context of the transition from being in college to being out of college — would reveal some really interesting and sharp distinctions in terms of how people use social media and what they like to share on their social media profiles. In fact, a lot of that data bears this out; that as people transition from college into the paid workforce, as they’re pursuing their careers and beginning to think about establishing their families, the things that they share via Facebook begin to change. They become more protective about privacy and personal data that they reveal.
 
We didn’t know this necessarily going into the survey, but there are some pretty interesting clear examples and evidence in our data about the distinctions between how men and women use Facebook. For example, women, compared to men, are much less likely to reveal personal kinds of data or personal kinds of interests, such as their religious or political views. The pictures that men post versus the pictures that women post tend to vary.
 
So, what we tried to do with the survey is really begin to start looking at some concrete distinctions in terms of social media behavior, trying to think about a broader cultural context for social media behavior and how social media behavior intersects with gender, class, education. Again, we looked at the transition from one stage of life to the next, because there is a tendency to over-generalize young people’s engagement with social media. There’s a tendency to articulate a very generic or stereotypical narrative about young people’s engagement with technology without really understanding the nuances, distinctions, and differences that define and shape how they use social media.
 
To be continued...
How does the digital divide impact social networks? How do individuals of differing backgrounds and socio-economic status experience digital media?
 
Part II of our interview with Professor Watkins will focus on his thoughts on the participation gap and how individuals of differing backgrounds experience digital media.
 
Additional Resources on Professor Watkins' work, digital media, and learning:

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