Covering Obvious Conclusions

New York Times takes the bait on lackluster study about kids and the Internet

Several newspapers recently published articles about a new study of children and their Internet usage. The version in The New York Times, by Tamar Lewin, begins like this:

Good news for worried parents: All those hours their teenagers spend socializing on the Internet are not a bad thing, according to a new study by the MacArthur Foundation.

The words “MacArthur Foundation” and New York Times lead the reader to believe that time spent surfing the Internet is equivocally beneficial. But the study does not prove, or even attempt to prove, that fact. The Times does add the qualification that, “The study, conducted from 2005 to last summer, describes new-media usage but does not measure its effects.” What that means, but what the Times let slide, is that that renders this research somewhat meaningless.

A summary of the report, called the “Digital Youth Project,” can be found here, and it turns out that the study didn’t demonstrate anything very surprising. Digital Youth Project did not, for instance, compare the grades and social success of students relative to their level and type of Internet usage. Researchers did not examine whether there are good and bad forms of online time. The study’s authors explain that:

The practices we focused upon incorporated a variety of geographic sites and research meth¬ods, ranging from questionnaires, surveys, semi-structured interviews, diary studies, observa¬tion, and content analyses of media sites, profiles, videos, and other materials. Collectively, the research team conducted 659 semi-structured interviews, 28 diary studies, and focus group interviews with 67 participants in total. We also conducted interviews informally with at least 78 individuals and participated in more than 50 research-related events such as conventions, summer camps, award ceremonies, and other local events. Complementing our interview-based strategy, we also clocked more than 5,194 observation hours, which were chronicled in regular field notes, and collected 10,468 profiles on sites such as MySpace, Facebook and Neopets (among others).

While undoubtedly a lot of work, this was not a terribly rigorous study. There was no control group, no null hypothesis. MacArthur’s researchers pretty much just interviewed people. It was essentially journalism, not science. Computer usage is a very interesting phenomenon to explore and there is potential for this study to change the way people understand how teenagers use the Internet. That being said, all that Digital Youth Project aimed to do was paint a picture of how students used digital media in their lives:

We rely on qualitative methods of interviewing, observation, and interpretive analysis in an effort to understand patterns in culture and social practices from the point of view of participants themselves, rather than beginning with our own categories. Our goal is to capture the youth cultures and practices related to new media, as well as the surrounding context, such as peer relations, family dynamics, local community institutions, and broader networks of technology and consumer culture.

Back when I used to work in education policy, at the Alliance for Excellent Education, we had a word for this sort of project: woofty, meaning that it was a soft, easy study, good for releases to the trade papers but containing no new or controversial information.

It goes without saying that the Internet is here to stay and that children’s lives, even more so than adults’, are defined by technological interactions. But the trouble with this study—and the articles covering it, which appear to rely excessively on the MacArthur Foundation’s press release—is that it makes it seem that all Internet time is created equal. It ignores the idea that time on the Web might be distracting. One of the study’s authors says:

It might surprise parents to learn that it is not a waste of time for their teens to hang out online. There are myths about kids spending time online – that it is dangerous or making them lazy. But we found that spending time online is essential for young people to pick up the social and technical skills they need to be competent citizens in the digital age.

The study basically says that using the Internet is good for teaching kids how to… use the Internet. It’s hard to disagree with this statement. But note that the study did not demonstrate that spending a lot of time online was safe, or had no effect on children’s work ethic.

It’s only ten years ago that I was in high school. While I don’t mean to sound elderly, and while it’s great to learn “how to get along with others, how to manage a public identity, and how to create a home page,” wouldn’t it also be important for teenagers to learn, say, algebra or early modern history? There are only so many hours in the day. Isn’t anyone interested in what people give up to spend so much time on the Internet? The New York Times doesn’t seem to be.

Daniel Luzer is web editor of the Washington Monthly.