Opportunities via Extended Networks for Teens’ Informal Learning

Teens are particularly poised to benefit from online technologies that support interactions with resources in their extended networks (i.e. people outside their immediate networks of family, school, and friends). They are early adopters and heavy users of social media tools. So, we might expect that they would actively extend their social relationships online. However, in our study of 23 teens, we find that few interact with their extended networks to take advantage of opportunities for informal learning. Why are some teens using technologies for informal learning via extended networks online while others are not?


We interviewed 23 teens (ages 13-17) to address this question. By informal learning, we refer to social processes occurring outside the classroom that engage the teen in diverse activities of interest. Our focus on informal learning draws on prior research on teen development showing that teens who pursue activities with peers are more likely to develop the social and personal supports needed for new and sustained learning. We distinguish immediate from extended networks based on sociological foundations that individuals are more likely to gain novel information through weak or new ties (which exist in extended networks).

Through our investigation, we found that:

  • Informal learning was engaged and sustained through relatedness (i.e., a desire for connection and validation). 89% of participants’ activities were initiated by a sense of relatedness, and in 74% of the activities sense of relatedness contributed to their continuation.
  • Relatedness both encouraged and inhibited teens’ use of technologies with extended networks. Relatedness inhibited use when immediate networks acted as barriers (e.g. a mother is paranoid about computer viruses and prevents her teen daughter from using the computer). Relatedness encourage the use of technologies for engaging with extended networks through several processes (e.g., when an adult suggests an online resource; when communities of interest attract new teens; or when knowledge in friendship circles is exhausted).
  • Group/teams were the reason for continued engagement in 10 teen activities.
  • Teens with higher Digital Skills scores and teens who spent more time online were more likely than not to use technologies to engage with extended networks.
  • Some technologies were used more with immediate networks, while others were used more to reach extended networks, albeit at different levels of sociality (see Table below, where sociali). The gaps in quantity and type of technologies used with immediate vs. extended networks represent design opportunities for the CSCW community.TechnologiesWithExtendedAndImmediateNetworks

For more, see our full paper, Opportunities via Extended Networks for Teens’ Informal Learning.

Peyina Lin, University of Washington
Shelly D. Farnham, FUSE Labs, Microsoft Research

2 thoughts on “Opportunities via Extended Networks for Teens’ Informal Learning

  1. Hi Peyina, this is interesting work — it fills in another piece of the story about weak ties and information-gathering in online social networking sites, which is more complex than one might have thought.

    Your paper’s design recommendations mentioned mentoring — what do you think the role of schools might be here? I remember having a penpal, and writing to the President, which were both “extended network” contacts that teachers encouraged us to make and guided us through. Was there anything like that happening in these teens’ schools? Does your work suggest any ways that experiences like that might be updated and modified for the YouTube era?

    Thanks again for this post, I enjoyed it.

    • Hi Rob,
      Thank you for your kind and thoughtful comments! I do agree that schools play a critical role in encouraging and connecting students to extended networks. Schools’ roles fit with our “push” model of bridging teens to extended networks. We did observe such push in some teens’ experiences in scouts and in video production, though probably not as consciously planned as your own experience.

      Updating the kind of experiences you had for the YouTube era is a great suggestion. Our recommendations in the paper mention raising teens’ awareness of how other peers reach extended networks and reward modeling such behaviors. We also mention matching learners with mentors. However, we do not explicitly mention doing this in YouTube or explicitly talk about the schools’ roles. When it comes to interventions that can affect a variety of teens, things are a bit more complicated…

      Formalizing certain interventions with school intervention may work really well with some teens, but it may turn off a bunch of more “alternative” teens (who shut off anything put forth by teachers or school) who perhaps need such interventions the most. Nevertheless, I agree that teachers and schools can play key roles in enabling many teens’ exploration of new networks online. I suppose a school-based formalized version could be that schools take part in inter-school networks where teens are encouraged to use YouTube or other peer production/ networking sites to gather and produce information, and are matched to mentors from other schools. A non-school based version could be that peer production sites like YouTube themselves come with mentor matching features, such that users get mentor recommendations based on their profile, interest, and online behavior (I’ve seen some interest-oriented sites for adults do that already).

      Thanks again for your interest and suggestions!

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