Blogging through Adolescence: Digital Communication with a Global Spin


by Marilyn Sherman

From cell phones to instant messaging, Internet blogs, online forums and texting—digital media have become as much a part of the world of adolescence as rock music and fashion fads. Learning sciences assistant professor Eva Lam immerses herself in this world as she studies the effects of new technologies on adolescents, especially immigrant teenagers.

"These young people who are growing up in the United States practically grow up with the Internet, cell phones and other digital devices," she says. "There's an affinity with these modes of communication that defies understanding by a generation of parents and teachers."

Lam is interested in why digital technology captivates young people. Like many educators, she would like to understand how to draw on the ability of digital media to motivate teenagers.

She points out these facts from recent studies:
  • Eighty percent of teenagers use instant messaging on a daily basis.
  • Eighty-seven percent of teenagers ages 12 to 17 use the Internet, and 56 percent own cell phones.
  • Young people readily adopt the convergence of media, such as video recording, texting, talking and downloading on a cell phone.
Young people's use of digital media has become so widespread that the term "digital natives" now refers to the generations growing up immersed in technology, in contrast with "digital migrants," who are still trying to come to terms with new technologies.

The digital native phenomenon has sparked major interest among researchers, who find that even the language use of digital natives is different. In the last five years, a growing number of studies have explored digital media and literacy, centering on questions such as "What sorts of literacy are they developing? What practices surround this use of language?"

U.S. immigrants but digital natives
However, while most research centers on middle-class white teenagers, Lam's research fills a gap by seeking to understand increasingly diverse students, especially Asian immigrant students, who are using the Internet. Many of these students network outside the United States and speak multiple languages online, where they connect with peers all over the world in Internet forums.

Assistant professor Eva Lam (far left) investigates the online communication of immigrant adolescents including Susan Cai (left photo) and her sister Suyun Cai (far right) at their home in Chicago's Chinatown. Lam finds that adolescents' worldwide digital communication in multiple languages improves their skills and fosters a broader view of current events.
Assistant professor Eva Lam (far left) investigates the online communication of immigrant adolescents including Susan Cai (left photo) and her sister Suyun Cai (far right) at their home in Chicago's Chinatown. Lam finds that adolescents' worldwide digital communication in multiple languages improves their skills and fosters a broader view of current events.
PHOTOS BY ROBB HILL


Lam's current study started with a survey of 270 first-generation immigrant teenagers, examining their digital communication. It found that 71 percent communicate with people in other countries, and 75 percent use more than one language. Students who immigrated during adolescence were most likely to communicate with teenagers in other countries—because they had already developed relationships at home, says Lam.

A key finding of Lam's research is that a significant number of immigrant students find Internet communication improves their language skills. "Our study shows the multilingual development that occurs as students use English and their native language in online environments," says Lam. Teenagers from South Asia practiced English the most, the survey found. "South Asian kids tend to have larger global networks, and English is preferred because of its global nature and its status in postcolonial South Asia," Lam explains.

Secondly, the Internet gives students the unique advantage of having a broader perspective on current events. The survey found that most immigrant students got their news from the web sites of different countries. "Their constant grappling with contrasting perspectives suggests the potential of global communication in fostering multidimensional perspectives on issues and events," says Lam. "This is a source of very valuable information, especially when we're dealing with global conflicts and a global economy."

Finally, Lam suggests that digital media may be contributing to a new kind of acculturation process. In the past, the two dominant models of acculturation were assimilation, where immigrants adopt the new culture, and multiculturalism, where they preserve their heritage. However, as new technology permeates as part of the larger economic and cultural processes of globalization, it can have profound effects. "How does technology affect identity development, one's view of self and one's place in society—and even across societies?" Lam asks. She believes these questions require investigation—and suggest the need for a broader view.

Learning from the lure of technology
As a follow-up to her survey, Lam is currently doing ethnographic studies that delve in depth with individual students. She spends time working with students at their homes and in communities, trying to understand their online practices and what they're learning. Their blogs, postings and instant messages are all fodder for examining language development, literacy development and social interactions.

Notably, the social side of Internet use is important. According to Lam, "Literacy is embedded in social relationships, so understanding social networks is crucial to understanding literacy." For example, in online forums teenagers come together to deepen their knowledge by learning from one another about an interest, such as anime.

"We should really take seriously how technology can be used to enhance learning," says Lam. "It is crucially important to understand what is engaging and motivating kids—how they are learning."

Even video games, which many parents and teachers dismiss as worthless, can be helpful if teenagers don't go overboard, Lam says. "We need to understand this sophisticated medium as a learning environment. How can we use it for educational purposes in a manner that can accomplish specific learning goals?"

Reasons for research

Both personal experience and educational vision motivate Lam's study of multinational communication. Personally, she communicates with her own transnational relatives in Hong Kong, Beijing and the United States, speaking Cantonese, Mandarin and English. "As somebody who speaks multiple languages on a daily basis, I'm really interested in how multilingualism can be a resource in our society," she says.

In a broader sense, she is also convinced of the importance of multilingualism for dealing with current foreign policy dilemmas. She explains, "Being able to stand outside of one cultural perspective and communicate across linguistic boundaries is vital to the health of our society and our relationship to other societies."

Her research focuses on adolescents for important reasons as well. "It's an age group when kids are really engaged with media. Kids in adolescence begin to develop more social networks and peer networks, and they're at a stage when so much can be formative in their learning and identity development," says Lam. In addition, although research shows many immigrants shy away from their native language during their high school years, "For me, adolescence is a time when we can intervene to provide more opportunities for them to affirm their linguistic and cultural heritage."

Eva Lam (upper right), who is currently conducting in-depth studies of online practices, visits the homes of high school students including Suyun (front) and Susan (upper left) Cai.
Eva Lam (upper right), who is currently conducting in-depth studies of online practices, visits the homes of high school students including Suyun (front) and Susan (upper left) Cai.
PHOTO BY ROBB HILL
By Marilyn Sherman with photos by Robb Hill