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Friday, July 3, 2009

We are not what we are but what we make of ourselves (Anthony Giddens, 1991)

Family and youth marketing consulting Barbie Clarke delivered a compelling presenting on her longitudinal research into kids and social networks (OK, as longitudinal as you can get with a class of online site that's only been popular since 2005 but feels like it's been there forever). Clarke, a child therapist by training, is a principal in Family Kids and Youth.

When Clarke began her research she was derided for saying she wanted to focus on children as young as 10; everyone said that was way too young. Now, a few years in, she wishes she'd looked from the start at children as young as 7! Even so, Clarke's ethnographies are among the very few looking at early adolescents.

Clarke posits that in the developed world, we've eliminated many adolescent "rites of passage" around puberty. To some extent, she says, digital technology has become a substitute rite – at age 8, 40% of kids have mobiles; by age 12, over 90% do. Purchasing data also shows a "summer rush" to buy mobile phones (akin to "back to school" clothes shopping) for children about to begin secondary school, as they will be more independent outside school hours.

Clarke believes there are two myths about time on social networks:
  1. children spend lots of time "alone" on computers -- most of the time they are surrounded by a virtual community of friends via IM or social networks, "talking" about day-to-day stuff like setting plans – it's ultimately the kids who aren't online who lose social currency and are outside the group; and

  2. children are likely to meet predators online -- most kids she's interviewed are well aware of stranger dangers, and counsel each other to take precautions; the kids she found to be most vulnerable to predators are those who are vulnerable in the real world, as well.
Clarke, like others, has noted that kids jump from social network to social network over time (see Paul Tyler's comment here). She posits that this migration has to do with kids' growing sophistication of knowledge about sites -- many start with Piczo which is very easy and intuitive; they may move on to MySpace which offers more protective possibilities but is still relatively transparent. The current favorite, Facebook, is far more open and requires more care; it’s easier not to set your privacy options than to set them. Migration is also technology driven, especially as convergence makes handheld devices more complex and omni-functional.

Clarke suggests that for clues to where kid will go next, we keep an eye on the Japanese market, where technology and trends tend to precede Europe and North America.

More details from Clarke's own keyboard are available on her blog.

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