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The Internet's new Dr. Spock?

MIT media scholar Henry Jenkins shares expertise on technology's effect on kids, how games are replacing TV and YouTube-style politics.

All parents question how technology is affecting their kids. Henry Jenkins, a media scholar at MIT, is working on the answer.

As director of the comparative media studies program at MIT, Jenkins is working under a grant from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation to study how digital environments are influencing children and to develop educational curricula based on his group's findings. (Last year, the MacArthur Foundation said it would invest $50 million over the next five years to build a network of researchers and community activists to work on digital education and new media literacy.)

Jenkins, 50, is also an expert on popular culture in the Digital Age and author of several books including Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Collide. Work on that book spawned the Convergence Culture Consortium, which helps media companies like MTV Networks and Yahoo think about how to engage with participatory cultures that define the generation growing up with technology.

CNET talked with Jenkins about the new digital divide, how games are replacing TV for learning and the YouTube presidential debates.

Q: What do you think defines this generation growing up with the Internet? What sets it apart from previous generations?
Jenkins: I think that there is an expectation to participate that runs through much of this generation. It's a desire to be part of the world and to be taken seriously on their own terms, to be not just a consumer of culture, but also a producer of culture.

(Research has shown) that 57 percent of teens online have produced media and about a third of them have produced media that they shared with people beyond their immediate friends and families. A good chunk of those produced media by remixing it, so this is a generation that is not just consuming media, but producing media.

I have two follow up questions. One is, how do you think that sense of empowerment changes their intelligence and how they socialize, if at all? The second is what do you think of the fact that remixing media is still largely an illegal act and they're sort of being made to be thieves?
Jenkins: Both of those are interesting questions so we'll begin with the first. I think that they are very much social networkers, at least those kids who are most immersed in the digital environment. That's a qualification I need to make right away because this cuts through this notion of a "participation gap."

I think that there is an expectation to participate that runs through much of this generation. It's a desire to be part of the world and to be taken seriously on their own terms, to be not just a consumer of culture, but also a producer of culture.

If we go back to that 57 percent of kids producing media, that means 43 percent didn't. The 57 percent are finding their way into the world without a lot of adult guidance because most of the adults around them don't understand the new social networks and new participatory culture they're moving through. The 43 percent are being left behind (because) they don't have access to technology (and) to shared social skills and cultural competencies they're going to need to become full participants in this environment.

Even among those who are participating, we're discovering these other hidden factors. Danah Boyd (a researcher at the University of California) has done some very interesting work on the role that class divisions play in shaping who uses Facebook and who uses MySpace. Even within that space we're seeing a division starting to climb.

(But the former group), these are kids who are learning to share knowledge, to collaborate over distances, to work with people from diverse backgrounds, to participate in a global culture--those are really powerful things that are emerging in this generation. But they're also facing dilemmas about intellectual property, cyberbullying and how to navigate these environments.

To the second question: What we've got to understand is this is a complex space that everyone is trying to find their way through. This is a period of prolonged and profound transition in the ways we relate to communication and information. That change is kind of a struggle that everyone is involved in.

What do you see as one way to handle this?
What has worked best is where we've created some shared spaces where young people and adults interact with each other in a different way than what occurs in schools or public institutions, where they can feel free to learn from each other. That kind of informal learning culture is what I think is most interesting about online worlds of fan gaming, blogging, Wikipedia and so forth. These are spaces where young people and adults face each other as equals, based on what they can contribute and based on what they know, rather than based on some fixed hierarchy defined by age or generation.

Can you describe one of those environments?
Jenkins: The world of Harry Potter fan fiction is a good example of that. J.K. Rowling's book inspired people young and old, not just to read deeply, but to rewrite and to retell those stories in rich ways. So we've now seen hundreds of thousands of pieces of original fiction based in the world of Hogwarts finding their way onto the Web, and the community itself is taking on responsibility for helping each other grow as writers.

For our readers, can you further explain the "participation gap" here and why it's important?
Jenkins: For a long time we talked about the digital divide, or access to the technologies of network computing. We made a lot of dramatic progress on that, but as we've done so, it has been clear that there still are some fundamental differences between those kids who have 24/7 broadband mobile access to every new media appliance and those kids who might have 10 minutes of access a day if they're lucky in a school or public library.

The research suggests that kids who live online understand the process by which knowledge is produced and shared in an online environment, whereas those kids who come in within 10 minutes, they're trying to get the answer and get off. So they're not as critical of a corporate Web site, for example. That's just one example of some fundamental inequalities in access to social skills and culture competencies between the information-haves and have-nots.

Turning your home into a surveillance culture where you don't trust your kids is dangerous because you're going to make it harder to communicate with your child. So part of what I've argued is that the kids don't need someone looking over their shoulders, they need someone watching their backs.

Really this becomes the basis for the new hidden curriculum. We now must say those kids who are raised in an environment where they have regular access to the online world????have a different way of learning that prepares them for school--to do better in school and in life--than those kids who were being left out.

So what's the answer?
Jenkins: It's going to require intervention in every level. It really does require schools to work closely to bring those kids who were cut out of the online world and it involves more than just putting computers in the classroom. It requires thinking across the curriculum about these skills and competencies. This is a problem that's big enough I think that every sector of society has something to contribute, which is why we're trying to work across industry, education, the policy arena, to try to get people to think creatively about what they each can contribute.

You've written about permissive childrearing doctrines before and so I wonder how dangerous do you think the Internet is in terms of pornography, spyware and advertising, and whether those pitfalls are outweighed by all the learning opportunities?
Jenkins: We have to take a realistic perspective. We need to be governed by knowledge and not ruled by fear. So, yeah, there are bad things out there in the Internet, but there is so much good stuff going on that it would be a shame to lock it up and shut down social networks or shut down access to gaming technologies because of concern for the negatives. It's the same way that the telephone is a tool that can be used negatively.

Turning your home into a surveillance culture where you don't trust your kids is dangerous because you're going to make it harder to communicate with your child. So part of what I've argued is that the kids don't need someone looking over their shoulders, they need someone watching their backs.

So you hear stories about the child predators on MySpace and they frequently don't give you any basis for judging whether this kid is more at risk on MySpace or at a church picnic or a Boy Scout outing. MySpace may be less of a risk for half a dozen good reasons.

How you think the Internet has affected child rearing, what it means to be a parent?

Jenkins: The interesting thing is if you look across the 20th century, every generation of parents has faced some fundamental social, technological and cultural shifts, which almost antiquated the ways in which they were raised. Parents often say, "The kids understand the technology better than we do." The reality is almost every generation of this 20th century thought that way.

One of the challenges is that parents are facing challenges with their young people that they were not part of and they're not anything their parents taught them how to deal with. They don't have a language to talk to their kids about a lot of the issues they're facing online.

Have you thought about what a healthy amount of time is for a kid to be on the Internet at like age 6 versus 10 versus 15?
Jenkins: I'm not sure I want to give a number, that's not really what it's about, it's about making an assessment of what's the quality of experience kids are having. How it's contributing to their development, and how it relates to their own goals further along.

What do you think of this fitness trend with the Wii? Do you think that it might change childhood obesity problems in this country?
Jenkins: I think that it's one of the more healthy trends in the development of digital technology. I think it's too early to tell whether it will have a long-term impact on physical fitness but it certainly has some potential. Most parents have had the experience of seeing a kid quit early when they get frustrated with their homework but wanting to stay up late when they get frustrated with a game they were playing. So how do we get them as determined to think about knowledge and learning as they are about beating the level of a game? The games are powerful because they define roles and rules in such a way that they motivate us to try new things, to take risks.

We're seeing this movement where participatory culture merges into participatory democracy and young people are at the forefront of that.

Do you think that the game console will supplant the TV?
Jenkins: Well, statistically speaking, the game console for at least young men is already beginning to surpass television, in terms of the amount of time kids play. From an educational standpoint, I think it has a lot of advantages over television as well as some disadvantages. It won't get rid of Sesame Street or National Geographic documentaries anytime soon, but they're really rich ways of learning about the world. Kids can act on information rather than simply consuming it.

How do you think the YouTube presidential debates reflect the changing nature of the political process and how this generation thinks about politics?
Jenkins: I was very excited by the YouTube debate and I'm very frustrated that the Republicans seem not to be willing to participate in the same process. I think it's probably the most important innovation in the political process since the town hall debates were introduced in the 1990s.

In the traditional debate, the candidate speaks past the questioner in order to address simply the substance of the question. In the town hall debate, the person is physically there and so you begin to factor in the life experiences, who this person is, and that gives us a model of how the candidate relates to the public in a very different way. But the problem is that the voter is being pulled into an environment that's totally alien to them.

What the YouTube debate did is bring that much more fully under the control of the citizen. The citizen not just frames the issue, but embodies the issue in the ways they choose to construct their video. The language is much less highbrow and much more down to earth. There's a kind of irreverence to authority in the YouTube questions that I think forces the candidates to break out of their normal way of speaking. It showed us how they thought on their feet in a different way.

So we're seeing this movement where participatory culture merges into participatory democracy and young people are at the forefront of that. Young people are interested in this new language of talking about issues, because the language of politics has become stagnant over the last 20 or 30 years. It no longer seems to speak the same way that citizens think and talk.

What's interesting about, say, use of social networks is that it creates not just connections between the voters and the candidates, but connections among the voters. The voters themselves feel part of a community and this generation seems to perceive politics as a communal activity. I think the combination of the social networks and YouTube really do seem to point toward a new style of politics that's emerging really rapidly in this election cycle and it's one that is suited for this generation that is coming of age in the new media environment.

I wonder what the downsides are of the communal participatory skills that this generation is developing. How do these skills affect one-to-one relationships or attention span. With new skills comes loss of some kind?
Jenkins: Sure, and I think it's again about finding that balance. I see multitasking as an emerging skill, but if it comes at the expense of the ability to really focus attention on a problem and think it through, then it's a problem. I think the ability to collaborate and work in noncollective intelligence communities is a real skill, but if it comes at the expense of individual autonomy and the ability to make your own decisions then it's potentially a downside.