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