The Digital Youth Project, a MacArthur-funded three year, 22 case study, $3.3 million ethnographic study of what kids are doing online, has wound up and published its results. The project was undertaken by the eminent sociologist Mimi Ito and her talented colleagues (including the incomparable danah boyd) and is the largest and most comprehensive study of young peoples' internet use ever undertaken in the US.
The conclusions are sane, compassionate, and compelling: in a nutshell, the "serious" stuff we all hope kids will do online (researching papers and so on) are only possible within a framework of "hanging out, messing around and geeking out." That is to say, all the "time-wasting" social stuff kids do online are key to their explorations and education online.
Ito and her team establish a taxonomy of social activity, dividing it first into "peer-driven" and "interest-driven" — the former being what kids do with their real-world friends, the latter being the niche interests that drive them to locate other people who are as fascinated as they are by whatever brand of esoterica they fancy.
Within these two categories, the researchers break things down further into "hanging out" (undirected, social activities), "messing around" (tinkering with media, networks and technologies) and "geeking out" (delving deep into subjects based on global communities of interest) and for each one, they describe the successful and unsuccessful techniques deployed by parents and educators to direct kids' activities.
All this is explained in a crisp, 55-page white paper, a snappy two-pager, and a full-length book called (appropriately), "Hanging Out, Messing Around, and Geeking Out: Kids Living and Learning with New Media." All three are available as free downloads, naturally, and the book can also be purchased as a physical object in a year when it's published.
This project is the best set of research-driven recommendations and observations about young peoples' use of technology I've seen — it's the perfect antidote to the scare stories of "internet addiction" and pedophiles stalking MySpace, and the endless refrain about "kids today." If you care about kids and want to understand how they use technology and why, this is a must-read.