I'm getting more and more annoyed with pundits and researchers who tell us what we already know, framed in the most alarmist way, and with special venom, paternalism, or anxiety directed at youth. Today, I read this tweet from my favorite analyst of new media and youth, danah boyd (@zephoria): "News report sez Internet interferes w/ teen sleep. Duh. So does school. Probably more so. Yet, which one will we try to stop?"
That made me chuckle, and I followed out the links to this new study, summarized as: "In a study presented Monday [May 16, 2011] at the American Psychiatric Association's annual meeting in Honolulu, researchers studying how media consumption affects adolescent sleep reported that video gaming and Internet use were associated with less sleep among teens, but TV watching was linked to slightly increased time in bed." Here's the url: http://tinyurl.com/4xzv9jl
There is so much wrong with this popularized account of the study that I hardly know where to begin. I don't know whether to blame the researchers or the editorialists reporting on the study, but the framing is something we see over and over in the news, as if youth today act in a way no youths have ever acted before. First problem, of course, is that TV puts me to sleep too (and I'm not a teenager). Second, if video gaming and internet use are interactive it is well, duh, hard to stay awake while doing something that requires being awake so that is a bit tautological. Third, nine hours of sleep is the metric used in this study, and, although that may be recommended for teenagers, I don't know a single teen who sleeps that much and I certainly did not when I was a teen. Fourth, really. Really? As danah notes, school and excessive homework and anxieties about peer pressure at school and all that interferes with sleep . . . but who recommends change there?
Other sleep-deprivation factors might include (and these are class and gender and race based too) fighting among parents, your dad or mom losing a job or never having one, gang warfare in your neighborhood, fear of the imminent rapture coming up this Saturday, you name it. My point is that "teens" are no more impervious to anxiety from the world they live in than adults. Insisting that "the Internet" is the cause of all problems scapegoats the Internet and also implies that kids have no power to control themselves. What about adults staying up on the Internet (or doing more office work) until the wee hours? Face it, is anyone getting enough sleep these days? There's lots to be awake about in the middle of the night--and it isn't becuase of the kids or technology.
My main gripe is that so many "studies" of Internet use and youth are from this odd "impersonal" point of view that feels as if it doesn't belong to a person. These studies sound as if written by people who were never young. Don't they remember what it was like being young? Or were researchers all tossed out of the womb at age 50, deprived of anything like youth themselves, and forever more critical of those who are young?
The punditry surrounding these studies also castigates youth for all manner of faults--but typically fails to get even the basics of history right but, rather, relies on comparisons (often ad hominem) with the supposed practices of recent generations, often highly idealized in retrospect, yet highly pessimistic and dystopic in prospect. "Youth are going to hell in a handbasket" is always a prognostication of the future, never remembered as a verdict delivered by our parents, in the past.
I don't mean to be cynical. Researchers are motivated largely by good intentions, a desire to make things better for kids, and every generation's worry about the future of the next. But I wonder how much the anxieties that fuel this punditry comes, first, from our own sense that we aren't doing a good job with the new technologies that command our work and personal lives. (Fact is, we need to lighten up because we've actually done a tremendously good job making adjustments, in half a generation, to entirely new ways of communicating. It's actually pretty amazing to see how much the fabric of daily life has been changed and to consider how well we have done managing this change personally.) On the other hand, a second reason we might be projecting anxiety on youth is that we adults haven't exactly done a great job of creating a wondrous world for this next generation to inherit. We are handing them a world full of poverty, inequality, war, discrimination, environmental disaster, and disease. I'm waiting for "youth" to do a massive study using "the internet" to analyze what the older generation has bequeathed to them. Turn those tables!
It's about time to see generational generalizaitons generated from the youth's point of view. I have a feeling that it won't be all that pretty, that those "pre-millenial" oldsters, that generation raised on TV and maybe even radio, had some pretty strange habits and ideas and, sadly, have passed a few of them on to these digital youth inheriting the 21st century.