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Children benefit from exposure to digital culture, Jenkins says

Children need to participate fully in digital culture in order to develop the "skills, knowledge, ethical frameworks and self-confidence needed to be full participants in the world around them," MIT Professor Henry Jenkins told members of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) recently.

Jenkins, director of the Comparative Media Studies Program, presented a paper at the AAAS annual meeting, which had the overall title "Grand Challenges, Great Opportunities." Held Feb. 16-20 in St. Louis, the meeting was attended by more than 6,000 people, including 900 scholars and scientists. Jenkins spoke at a symposium titled "It's 10 p.m.: Do You Know Where Your Children Are ��� Online" in the AAAS series, "Kids Online -- A New Community."

Jenkins, the principal investigator for the New Media Literacies project in the Comparative Media Studies Program, presented some of the project's early research findings.

He focused on 21st-century literacy, which is based on the ability to read and write and includes the digital skills to participate socially and collaboratively in the new media environment.

Jenkins proposed that there is a high 21st-century literacy rate among teens -- measured by their skillful use of all things digital, including instant messaging, Myspace, sampling, zines, mashups, Wikipedia, gaming and spoiling -- that has far more meaning than "screen time" implies.

"Social connectivity, creativity and learning take place through these various media-related experiences," said Jenkins, long a proponent of open-mindedness towards new media and of respect for its political and creative potential.

He tirelessly contrasts passive media consumption -- the slug on the couch -- with the activities of digital culture. The latter is essentially participatory, meaning it has "relatively low barriers to artistic expression and civic engagement, strong support for creating and sharing what you create, and members feel their contributions matter," he noted.

Rather than focus on the negative effects of media consumption -- the dreaded "screen time" -- parents and teachers should seek to eliminate the "participation gap" between affluent students' digital resources at home and those available to less affluent students at school.

"This may be what is most radical about the new literacies -- that they enable collaboration and knowledge-sharing with large-scale communities. Right now, our schools are still training autonomous problem-solvers. But as students enter the workplace, they are increasingly being asked to work in teams, drawing on different sets of expertise and collaborating to solve problems," he said.

Jenkins' new book, "Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Collide," will be published this summer by New York University Press.

A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on March 15, 2006 (download PDF).

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