by Julie Frechette
On November 4 and 5, educators and activists gathered in the beautiful and historic city of Rome for the annual Media Education Summit sponsored by the Center for Excellence in Media Practice (CEMP). Held at John Cabot University, the conference sessions addressed the importance and need for research in media literacy from pre-K to higher education and in local to global communities. A running theme across the panels was how to study and address the challenges and opportunities posed by the digital age. Conference organizers Julian McDougall and Antonio Lopez, among others, welcomed attendees and introduced the ambitious two-day conference itinerary.
Sonia Livingstone, a professor of Social Psychology at the London School of Economics and Political Science, delivered the opening keynote. A long-time media literacy researcher and advocate, Livingstone presented the findings of her latest study and book, which analyzes the rhetoric and mythology of “the digital” in the lives of children. Livingstone’s recent project seeks to examine the influence of the digital on the social (peers), home (family), and learning (schools) spheres of young children. Four key phases define her study: Phase 1, in the classroom, analyzing the lessons and engaging in ethnography (listening to children); Phase 2, in the home; Phase 3, in the child’s environments, analyzing students’ peer groups, locale, music lessons, sporting events, and pizza parties; and Phase 4, in schools, asking students to reflect on their school year at ages 13 to 14. For one year, Livingstone situated herself within an urban school comprising students from both low- and high-socio-economic families to explore the varied ways in which elements of the digital are often missed or not optimized for learning in the classroom and at home. She discovered that in virtually all of the classrooms, the Smart Board is usually at the front of the classroom, encouraging students to gaze at the board all day uncritically, which may be a detrimental side of the digital. Only when properly engaged in media literacy activities does the Smart Board and the information presented on it become interactive and the subject of critical inquiry. Otherwise it’s often used as another means of didactic learning that goes unquestioned.
Part of Livingstone’s ethnography entailed analyzing student life before they arrived at school, as well as what they did with digital technology. One student played Xbox late into the night before school, others used cell phones to text friends for school-related assignments, and teachers used it for teaching. Often, there was little connection found between the kind of learning that took place at home and the learning that took place in class. One of the interesting spaces where children tended to “disconnect” from the digital was when walking home after school. Livingstone argues that this face-to-face time constituted a space of agency for young people—one of their last chances to talk to friends in person before getting home and linking to the digital. Her study uncovered that there weren’t a lot of spaces between the spheres of school and home for students to do anything they wanted unmediated from the digital.
Among other findings, home life was seen as a more chaotic place than the standardized classroom space. For instance, fandom and digital interests often prevailed. Facebook and other social media were often used as a distraction while some youths used these platforms for obtaining homework help from their peers. Other digital engagements included connecting with friends through virtual computer games, playing Minecraft, using Tumblr, and developing fandom affinity such as for Harry Potter. Only one student in the study refrained from “the virtual” by riding his bike and not using media. In the evening, most students were drawn into family time, but that time and space was often defined by media (such as watching a movie) and often involved using individualized digital media (family members multitasking during shared time through use of the phone, mobile devices, and tablets). Hence, the digital serves both to connect and to disconnect families.
Livingstone contends that young people don’t wish to be plugged in; rather, they seek to use media as a means of choice to determine when and where to connect with those around them. This seems to suggest the “uses and gratifications” model of media use, which I believe tells only part of the story. She insists that digital media allow teens agency. How? By avoiding critical parents and teachers, by reconnecting with friends, and by escaping the growing digital embrace of the school (which increasingly uses e-mail or the Internet to contact students at home). She believes that digital devices are young people’s ways of disconnecting from required expectations at school and home. So while there could potentially be opportunities for meaningful media literacy to occur in both spaces, they are often missed or not optimized (positive misconnections). In sum, she states that in the digital, students’ lives are now lived in total collectivity, and in many ways, young people are looking for positive disconnections with that.
Although I enjoyed the presentation and found many points of agreement, I have some observations and questions (which are not meant to take away from the merits of the talk).
1. Given the study’s limited scope and validity—one school, a small number of students studied in one year—I have questions about how “the digital” was conceptualized as a rhetorical framework. I would need to read the book to learn more about which aspects of the digital were analyzed, as it seemed rather broad and generic.
2. Based on my limited knowledge of the project, the methodology did not seem to encapsulate a holistic model of media theory and outcomes that would (a) yield effective pedagogical models for engaging in critical media literacy analysis or (b) offer a vision of how young people’s lives could be enriched if they were provided with alternative discourses or practice of the digital. For instance, how would students have responded to an engaging ACME activity such as Jacques Brodeur’s 10-Day Screen-Free Challenge or to Josh Golin’s Commercial-Free Childhood advocacy? In what ways could the process of critical analysis of media be initiated and encouraged to promote child development outside of the digital? What production-based projects could have been developed for students to learn to use digital media tools through a critical approach?
While Livingstone’s talk hints at these questions, I’m not sure if the study directly or fully addressed them. I would have liked to hear more about the need and best practices for developing critical media literacy through social justice and activism.
3. If the goal is to study how the digital affects today’s youths, why not include analysis of the ongoing ways in which corporate media target youths as a profitable demographic through entertainment, marketing, and advertising? While home and school are important spheres to study in learning about how youths relate to the digital, it’s important to examine the most predominant cultural influencers of youth culture, namely, for-profit media and the technology sector. Although this project’s findings demonstrate how youths are seeking private space outside of the digital realms of the classroom and home, I would have liked to learn more about how “panopticonic” institutions, including commercial and technological ones, exercise their voyeuristic gaze to discover more about youths and their lives for capitalistic and neo-liberal goals.
Ultimately, Livingstone was right about this: “the digital” reproduces and accelerates competitive individualism as the means for attaining success in today’s world. For this reason, instead of encouraging youths to compete in a neoliberal economy driven by digital technology, I’m an advocate for a model of critical media literacy driven by social justice and activism to help shape community and offer transformational change.
Julie Frechette, Ph.D., is professor and chair of the Department of Communication at Worcester State University, Worcester, Mass. She is co-editor of Media Education for a Digital Generation and author of Developing Media Literacy in Cyberspace. She serves as co-president of the Action Coalition for Media Education.