Youth engage with others to work out boundaries, to understand norms. This is how they learn power and authority, how they learn the networked architecture of everyday life. It’s easy to eschew this, to argue that this is irrelevant, but most people spend a decent amount of their time working through social issues as a part of being an adult in this society. We talk about it as “politics” usually but it’s about people. And teen years are where this is worked out.
Since we’re using social network sites as a case study, let me point out one of the places where they FAIL miserably. On social network sites, you have to publicly list your Friends and you have to have the functioning network to leverage it. What happens if you’re an outcast at school? Does bringing it into the classroom make it worse? What happens if you’re forced to Friend someone who torments you because you share a class? And then you have to face that person in your “private” space online as well? Bringing social network sites into the classroom can be very very tricky because you have to contend with social factors that you, as a teacher, may not be aware of.
It’s critical to realize that just because young folks pick up a technology before you do doesn’t inherently mean that they understand it better than you do. Or that they have a way of putting it into context. What they’re doing is not inherently more sophisticated – it’s simply different. They’re coming of age in a culture where these structures are just a given. They take them for granted. And they repurpose them to meet their needs. But they don’t necessarily think about them.
Educators have a critical role when it comes to helping youth navigate social media. You can help them understand how to make sense of what they’re seeing. We can call this “media literacy” or “digital literacy” or simply learning to live in a modern society. Youth need to know more than just how to use the tools – they need to understand the structures around them.