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Teens' use of Internet and online services documented in new book

Andrea Lynn, Humanities Editor


Frances Jacobsen Harris
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Photo by Corley Photography
Frances Jacobson Harris, a librarian at the University Laboratory High School at Illinois, has written "I Found It on the Internet: Coming of Age Online."

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — What adults don’t know about teens‘ use of the Internet and other high-tech services could fill a book.

And has.

In “I Found It on the Internet: Coming of Age Online” (American Library Association), readers learn, for example, how teens use online jargon like “Leetspeak” to jockey for status; blogs to display their wit and uniqueness; instant messaging to exclude others but also to collaborate on homework projects.

We also learn that teens use technology in ways that developers haven’t anticipated, and that teens are expert multi-taskers, able to juggle any number of online services – most of this behavior in the name of growing up.

“What teens do to one another online and the uses they make of technology for personal and social development are issues that have not received the attention they deserve,” writes Frances Jacobson Harris in her preface to “I Found It.”

According to Harris, the popular press has focused on “problems that arise from the controversial digital content that teens can now easily get their hands on, including pornography and hate literature.”

“But the focus on content misses the point by oversimplifying the complex issues that are involved,” she wrote.

In her experience as a longtime high school librarian, the problems that arise as a result of communication technology “are just as serious as those spawned by information technology.”

In her book, Harris leads readers through the maze of services that millions of youngsters are plugging, tapping and dialing into – and millions of their parents, teachers and librarians are clueless about.

She guides readers through the thicket of thorny issues technologically savvy teens are facing these days, including hacking, cheating, privacy, harassment and access to inappropriate content.

And along the way, Harris dispenses a fair amount of common sense about growing up in general, and growing up in the technological age in particular.

A librarian for nearly 20 years at the University Laboratory High School of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, Harris team-teaches a computer literacy course for eighth and ninth graders that has a major focus on the ethical use of information and communication technologies. Her writings have appeared in such publications as School Library Journal, Knowledge Quest and Library Trends.

In her book, Harris explores the rapidly morphing world of “ICTs,” or information and communication technologies – “environments in which people use communication technology to access information, manipulate it, transform it, and exchange it.” This includes one-to-one ICT environments, such as e-mail and instant messaging; personal ICT environments, including personal Web pages, blogs and online diaries; and collaborative ICT environments, such as usenet and message boards, electronic discussion lists, chat rooms and peer-to-peer (also called P2P) file sharing.

She also outlines what she believes should be the future role of librarians with regard to technology and teens.

“We have come a long way,” Harris writes, speaking of librarians. “Our professional literature is replete with how-to manuals for teaching with technology and running technology-based libraries. But we still must come to terms with the way kids perceive the world as a result of growing up with digital technology.”

In her considered opinion today’s teens experience a “ubiquitous connectedness” that was impossible to imagine even 10 years ago.

“By listening to teens and learning from their native perspectives, we stand a much better chance of harnessing the power of technology in ways that enhance core library services and systems.”

Other observations:

• ICTs afford an independence to teenagers that is otherwise difficult for them to achieve, and can give them control over their discretionary time;

• Even though the Web has a reputation for hosting sexual predators in chat rooms and other online places, “It is more likely that teens will find safe and healthy places to conduct their social experimentation and information gathering”;

• While much of teen activity revolves around sharing, ICTs also are being used to exclude people from teen community by way of online blocking and bullying;
• Teens manipulate their social standing in various ways, including adopting different language styles and adjusting the subject matter;

Online jargon, for example, is used to establish credibility as a member of the community, to elevate one’s status in it or to reveal one’s “utter cluelessness.”

One form of jargon uses numbers and symbols for letters, phonetic spelling and the substitution of letters; “d00d” means dude, “pr0n” means porn, but among teens, “the overuse of certain conventions is as big a sin as their misuse,” Harris wrote.

• A great deal of “ICT-enabled life” is less than desirable, some is merely annoying and some is “outright abhorrent.” Hatemongering, conducted by extremist hate groups, is one example of the abhorrent.

“While there is as yet no concrete evidence that online hate speech has made significant strides in recruiting teens to extremist organizations, hate-based music “might be another story,” she wrote. White power music, such as that delivered by Resistance Records, “is enjoying an unprecedented level of success.”

Above all else, Harris hopes to convey the idea that technologies can help teens do their job, which is “to develop a sense of identity and of community.”

“To put it another way, information and communication technologies give teens access to information and to others – two key elements in their critical search for personal identity and their place within the larger community.”

Harris also hopes that parents, teachers and librarians see the importance of educating themselves about the technologies teens are using, even incorporating some of them into their own lives.

“By doing so, they’ll have more credibility with their kids, they won’t respond inappropriately to phantom problems and they’ll be able to recognize genuine problems.

“Today librarians have the power to make the merge of information and communication technologies work for people in ways that are humane and enriching. Teenagers are our partners in this endeavor. They are the innovators whose imaginations we must value. We will not succeed without their vision and energy, and they will not become library users without our skill and passion. It’s a marriage made in heaven.”