The Heterogeneity of U.S. Digital Youth

Due to their high levels of engagement with the tools, networks, and the content in the new media environment, U.S. youth has become the focus of various studies that describe and analyze changes in communication, social, and cultural practices. While some researchers have tended to idealize children and youth born after the 1990s calling them “digital natives” and described them as a homogenous technological savvy generation (Prenksy 2001; Tapscott 1998; Palfrey & Gasser 2008) others have looked more closely at the different sociocultural practices that youngsters were doing within the new communication environment. Scholars from different disciplines analyzed youth new media practices and ecologies (Jenkins et al. 2006; Ito et al. 2010), social relationships (boyd 2007, 2010, 2014; Watkins 2010), and literacies (Gee 2000; Lankshear and Knobel 2006, 2007a, 2007b, 2008, 2010, 2011; Tyner 1998; Jenkins et al. 2006b). Considering U.S. young people as actors with agency and power in culture and society, researchers have tried to understand youth mediated and networked everyday lives. Their findings reveal, among other things, an active engagement in popular culture and informal learning (Jenkins et al. 2006; Ito et al. 2010), the increase of digitally mediated sociability (boyd 2007, 2014; Watkins 2009), and the emergence of several new literacies. (Gee 2000; Lankshear and Knobel 2006, 2007a, 2007b, 2008, 2010, 2011; Alexander, 2008)

The Internet and the World Wide Web, together with the spread of broadband connections, and the massive adoption of computers and networked mobile devices, support the development of media practices that are more interconnected, ubiquitous, and social. These practices are as varied as creating multimodal content, searching for information, communicating with friends, downloading files, listening to music, watching videos, or re-circulating content in Social Network Sites (SNS). Researchers have noticed that as young people develop meaningful new media practices they participate more actively in the production of culture and are able to structure their learning around their own interests. (Ito et al. 2010) In “Confronting the Challenges of Participatory Culture: Media Education for the 21st Century” Jenkins et al. (2006) analyzed the kind of informal learning that is taking place in contemporary media culture, a culture that they describe as more participatory. As Jenkins et al. state, participatory culture emerges “as the culture absorbs and responds to the explosion of new media technologies that make it possible for average consumer to archive, annotate, appropriate, and recirculate media content in powerful new ways.” (8) The emphasis in participation highlights the connection across educational practices, creative processes, community life, and democratic citizenship. According to Jenkins et al., these new practices can be conceptualized as affiliations (membership in online communities, message boards, online games), expressions (music remixing, fan videomaking, fan fiction writing, mash-ups), collaborative problem solving (working together in teams, formal and informal, to complete tasks and develop new knowledge), and circulations (podcasting, blogging).

Although the proliferation of new media practices among U.S. youth can be understood in relation to a new cultural and technological context in which the creation and sharing of media content has become more social, democratic, and networked, it also needs to be understood in relation to a U.S context in which opportunities are not evenly distributed. Due the visibility and abundance of creative expressions online, the transformation of audiences into networked publics, and the renewed potential of mediated forms of communication, learning, and sociality, research on youth and new media have tended to overlook how disparities in participation are also strongly related to historical structures of privilege. There is an urgent need to understand how socioeconomic, racial, gender, and educational inequalities shape the development of new media practices among youth. As S. Craig Watkins points out, “young people’s adoption of digital media is shaped by a mix of factors —social, familial, economic, cultural, political— that situate a wide range of digital media activities and forms of engagement.” (2012) That is precisely why it is important to take a closer look at how Latino/Hispanic immigrant youth in the U.S. are developing new media practices and skills, how they are living their everyday lives within a networked media environment, how they are using new media tools and networks to leverage resources and opportunities, and how those practices are shaping their assimilation trajectories in the U.S.

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