Making Access Meaningful: Latino Young People Using Digital Media at Home and at School



Through case studies of 2 working-class Latino middle school students (ages 12 and 14), we examine how the young people negotiated economic and cultural barriers to digital media and mobilized opportunities to use media in pursuit of their own interests. For the young people in our study, school assignments offered opportunities to use digital media tools and become ‘content creators.’ However, the nature of the assignments and the restrictions placed on technology use in the classroom stood in contrast to the interests that motivated the teens' participation in popular media culture outside of school. We argue that this disconnect limited the potential of media production assignments to connect to student interests and provide youth with meaningful access to new technology.

Introduction: Questioning the Discourse of ‘Digital Natives'

Digital media and networked technology appear to be increasingly ubiquitous in the lives of young people in the U.S. A 2006 report from the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) at the U.S. Department of Education reports that nearly 100 percent of public schools in the United States have Internet access, with 97 percent reporting having a broadband connection. As of 2007, other survey-based research showed that 93 percent of U.S. teenagers now use the Internet, and 59 percent have participated in one or more “content-creating” activities on the Web such as sharing artwork, photos, stories, or videos, and contributing to or creating webpages or blogs (Lenhart, Madden, Macgill, & Smith 2007). Indeed, digital media has become such an important part of many young people's lives, that the current cohort of young people have come to be called “digital natives” (Palfrey & Gasser, 2008), “cyberkids” (Facer & Furlong, 2001; Holloway & Valentine, 2003), or members of a “digital generation” (Tapscott, 1998, 2008; Montgomery, 2008) who “live and breathe” technology.

Despite widespread access to the Internet and digital media technology, however, there remain significant disparities in the quality and nature of young peoples' access (c.f. Lenhart, Arafeh, Smith, & Macgill, 2008; Livingstone & Helsper, 2007; Roberts, Foehr, & Rideout, 2005). These disparities can be seen, for example, in the large numbers of low-income young people and young people of color who must rely on schools, libraries, and community organizations to gain Internet access (Fairlie, London, Rosner, & Pastor, 2006), as well as in young peoples' unequal access to the economic, social, and cultural capital needed to mobilize online opportunities (Seiter, 2008). Recent studies suggest that low-income Latino young people in the U.S., in particular, are among those least likely to have Internet access outside school, and also the least likely to have access to a parent who uses the Internet (Fairlie et al., 2006; Macgill, 2007; Fox & Livingston, 2007).

Digital inequality is partly about unequal access to particular technologies. However, it is also about a gap in the ways those technologies are framed, understood, and used in different contexts. This article addresses these multifaceted issues of digital equity and access through case studies of how two working-class, Latino middle-school students engaged with media at home and in a yearlong media production curriculum at school. Led by a science/health teacher and a language arts teacher, James (14) and Michelle (12), along with their classmates, worked on eight different media projects including PowerPoint presentations and videos. James's and Michelle's experiences represent unique cases in the study of digital media in schools because the two students were enrolled in special education. Although technology and media production are becoming commonplace in more and more classrooms across the United States, production projects are much less common in special education classes, where the focus is typically on meeting students' individual needs and (if possible) preparing students to enter the general education population.

In addition to describing how young people engage with media production, this article addresses concerns related to digital inequality and the participation gap (Jenkins, Clinton, Purushotma, Robinson, & Weigel, 2006; Livingstone & Helsper, 2007; Warschauer, 2003; Facer & Furlong, 2001). The young people in our study, including James and Michelle, were predominantly low income Latino youth, ages 11–14 years old. Few had home access to computers, the Internet, digital cameras, or media production software. In this way, the school's media production curriculum represented both a new way of using technology at school and an opportunity for access to digital media that most did not have at home. Although the young people we profile in this article were on the margins of a youth culture steeped in ubiquitous access to technology, this is not to say, however, that they did not interact with a variety of analog and digital media. In fact, as shall be discussed, they had routine, creative ways of using media in their everyday lives that they found to be meaningful.

Youth-Driven vs. Adult-Driven Genres of Participation

In an attempt to move away from totalizing generational discourses about young peoples' media and technology use, we utilize the notion of “genres of participation,” a concept that has been developed through the findings of the Digital Youth Project (Ito et al., forthcoming).1 Genres of participation are modes of engagement with media and technology that guide the ways in which people understand and operate within mediated spaces. The key distinction between genres of participation put forth by the Digital Youth Project is between participation that is friendship-driven and that which is interest-driven. Friendship-driven genres emphasize social participation while interest-driven genres revolve around the pursuit of knowledge or experiences related to a specific topic or activity. In addition to friendship-driven and interest-driven genres, the Digital Youth Project identifies three additional genres, “hanging out,”“messing around, and “geeking out,” each of which is defined in relation to interest- and friendship-driven participation. In this article, we extend the notion of genres of participation to distinguish between genres that are fundamentally youth-driven and those that are adult-driven.

Youth-driven genres of participation represent the voluntary, self-directed activities of young people that emerge when youth are able to pursue their own interests and motivations with media. Far from being trivial, these genres are meaningful to young people and valuable for social development and learning. For example, “hanging out” as a genre of participation describes how youth use new media communication to “construct spaces for copresence and engage in ongoing, lightweight social contact” (Horst, Herr-Stephenson, & Robinson, forthcoming). As contemporary friendship practices among youth are increasingly mediated by digital media and networked communication, access to these media for hanging out makes it possible for youth to participate in important aspects of social life and development. “Messing around” as a genre of participation describes ways youth experiment and tinker with media as they pursue self-directed interests such as looking around online, media production, and game play. This form of engagement with media can be highly productive for learning, often providing a stepping-stone to deeper engagement with a new area of interest, and fostering greater forms of media awareness and technical expertise. “Geeking out” refers to intense commitment or engagement with media or technology, often a particular media property, game, or type of technology. Geeking out involves high levels of specialized knowledge and a willingness to bend social and technological rules and, similar to “messing around,” it can be highly productive for learning (Horst et al., forthcoming).

Adult-driven genres of participation represent modes of engagement with media that are organized primarily around adult concerns and goals for young people. Such genres include, for example, educational activities that incorporate media towards the goal of teaching academic content, or parental rules about media that are designed to cultivate particular beliefs or dispositions. As these examples imply, parents, teachers, and other educators are often the impetus for adult-driven genres. Parents, for example, may enact adult-driven participation by directing their children to ‘edutainment’ software or by installing filters to prevent them from accessing certain websites. In a similar vein, teachers may incorporate youth-authored media production into instruction, but do so in a way that addresses the standard curriculum and teacher-approved content. In both cases, young peoples' uses of media and technology are structured to align with adult agendas of education and protection. Other examples of adult-driven participation can be found in afterschool programs and ‘informal’ educational settings, such as museums, that use media in the context of the instructional activities they organize for young people.

While adult-driven genres of participation with media can provide young people with rich, valuable learning opportunities, they often fail to incorporate—in a meaningful way—young peoples' interests and motivations with media. This is particularly salient in schools, where young people are often discouraged or forbidden from using media for hanging out or messing around. This represents a missed opportunity for learning, we argue, and also perpetuates what Buckingham (2007) describes as a “second digital divide.” This divide, according to Buckingham, consists of the difference between how young people use digital media and technology in school (and in other ‘educational’ contexts) and how these same technologies are used in young peoples' everyday lives. In our research with young people across home and school contexts, we routinely saw evidence of such a divide. On the one hand, media production assignments offered new opportunities for students to use digital media tools and to become ‘content creators.’ In interviews, young people often claimed that media production assignments were “more fun” and “better” than other types of schoolwork. On the other hand, students treated most production activities as something that they ‘had to do,’ much like other schoolwork, because the teacher required it. In this way, there was an apparent disconnect between school media production assignments and the sense of enthusiasm students had for media culture. At the same time, however, as shall be discussed, we observed many examples of young people attempting to bridge this divide. For example, on several occasions students incorporated humor and popular culture references into their assignments, co-opted online access at school to search for information on nonschool related topics, and adapted media production skills from the classroom to their own production activities outside of school.

Schools, the Digital Divide, and the Participation Gap

In this article, we recognize that digital inequality cannot be separated from other experiences of inequality based on race, gender, class, sexuality, or ability that are, tragically, a part of many students' school experiences. We do not propose technological access as a solution to social inequality; yet, we do recognize socially meaningful access to technology as valuable, and indeed critical, to young peoples' social and ‘digital’ inclusion (Warschauer, 2003; Livingstone & Helsper, 2007).

In the U.S., much of the discourse framing the digital divide has shifted from a focus on physical access to hardware to a focus on the range of physical, digital, human, and social resources that shape meaningful and socially valued participation with digital media (Warschauer, 2003). Instead of defining contemporary digital inequities in the terms of stark divides between haves and have-nots, media scholars such as Livingstone and Helsper (2007) have focused instead on “gradations in digital inclusion.”Jenkins et al. (2006) also complicate the notion of the digital divide by focusing instead on what they call the “participation gap.” They argue that deep inequities exist, not just in young peoples' access to technology, but also in access to the opportunities for participation they represent. Youth participation in contemporary media culture contains valuable opportunities for learning, creative expression, civic engagement, political empowerment, and economic advancement. Yet such opportunities are not necessarily or automatically available to young people. Instead, participation requires access to technology as well as the new media literacy skills—cultural competencies, social skills, and technical know-how—needed to participate. The “participation gap,” they argue, in essence represents a new form of hidden curriculum, “shaping which youth will succeed and which will be left behind as they enter the school and the workplace” (Jenkins et al., 2006, p. 3).

Many scholars of digital media and learning highlight the importance of informal learning venues (e.g. homes, after-school programs, community centers, etc.) in providing youth with the time, autonomy, and opportunity for trial and error needed to develop new media literacy skills and actively participate in new media cultures (c.f. Jenkins et al., 2006; Ito et al., forthcoming). Schools, in contrast, are viewed as limited in facilitating opportunities for informal learning because of constraints on financial and human resources, an already-overloaded curriculum, and the overarching demands of high-stakes standardized testing. Certainly, schools, in their current form, cannot be expected to provide on a large scale the same type of atmosphere for informal learning that is available to young people with access to digital media and the Internet at home. However, we would like to recommend that educational institutions rethink the types of digital media projects and instruction that go on in classrooms to better integrate media culture and youth-driven technological practices that are familiar, interesting, and motivating for young people. Further, we suggest that providing young people with access to computers and time for open-ended exploration is particularly important for economically disadvantaged students, for whom school is often the most reliable source of access to working technology and the Internet.


This article draws on ethnographic research of young peoples' media use in both school and home contexts. During the 2005–06 academic year, the University of Southern California Institute for Multimedia Literacy and the Los Angeles Unified School District Arts Education Branch collaborated in delivering a professional development initiative in media arts to five middle schools in the Los Angeles area. Three ethnographic researchers (including the authors and Katynka Martinez2) participated in the initiative as participant observers and program assistants. In this capacity, we followed middle school teachers and students as they engaged in a variety of media arts activities in the classroom, often helping them in the process. Towards the end of the year, we selected students from one of the schools for further study, and then conducted a series of home visits and interviews with students and their parents about their experiences with media and technology. The schools we studied served predominantly low-income Latino youth,3 and the home visits we conducted were primarily with working class Latino families.

In this article, we discuss findings from one class, a mixed-grade (6th-8th) special education classroom in Cameron Middle School (CMS). The class was small, with students joining and leaving the group throughout the school year. On average, the class included 12–14 students and was evenly split between boys and girls. The majority of students in the class were Latino; there was also one African American student in the class, and two white students. Students in the class had been referred to special education primarily because they were years behind grade level in reading ability; some were also reported by teachers and parents to be receiving special education services due to significant behavioral issues. The home-based research took place in May and June of 2006. Eight families participated in this phase of the research, including seven Latino immigrant families (in which one or both parents were first generation immigrants) and one African American family. The eight family groups represented 35 individuals, including 11 parents, 21 young people between the ages of 2 and 16 (10 boys and 11 girls), and 3 adult extended-family members.

Our classroom-based research emphasized participant observation. Throughout the year, we worked closely with teachers and students during media production activities, documenting their conversations and activities in ethnographic field notes. We collected artifacts such as lesson plans and youth-authored media projects, and also conducted interviews and focus groups with teachers and students. At the end of the school year, we visited students' homes and conducted interviews with the young people and their parents. In both school and home contexts, interviews were recorded and later transcribed. Home interview questions focused on how family members engaged with media and communication technologies, as well as family rules and debates about media. Interviewees also provided “guided tours” of the media and communication technology they had in the home, which allowed for more informal conversations about media use. Each interviewee selected the primary language for the interview (English or Spanish); young peoples' interviews were predominantly conducted in English and parents' interviews were predominantly conducted in Spanish.4

In what follows, we present case studies of two of the young people from this study. We focus on how the young people negotiated barriers to access and how they worked to use media for their own interests and goals. At home, their efforts emphasized convincing parents, friends, and neighbors to let them use the Internet and other media to pursue friendship-driven interests, such as going on MySpace to talk to friends, and interest-driven pursuits, such as acquiring music and playing games. At school, they negotiated the particular demands of media production assignments, rules related to the use of technology at school, classroom expectations for behavior, and technical constraints in efforts to complete media production assignments. The main goals of the case studies are to call attention to the many social, technical, and cultural barriers to access young people face and to highlight the strategies they use to negotiate such barriers. In this discussion, we emphasize the complexity of digital inclusion and point to the importance of incorporating media culture, not just technology, into schools.

Making the Most of Limited Access: The Case of James Ramos

James was just a few days away from his eighth-grade graduation when we interviewed him and his parents, Alicia and Martin. James, 14, lived with his parents, his 9-year-old sister, and his 1-year-old brother in a three-bedroom apartment. Martin had immigrated to the United States from El Salvador when he was very young and Alicia was a second-generation Mexican American. Both Alicia and Martin worked full time, relying on nearby family members for childcare for their baby. As the oldest child in the family, James frequently was responsible for keeping an eye on his younger siblings, a task which he appeared to enjoy.

James and his sister shared a bedroom, which was clearly divided into ‘his’ and ‘hers’ sides, each with shelves displaying objects of interest and value. James's side showed off his baseball trophies, while his sister's displayed an impressive stuffed animal collection. Also shared in the room was a small television and a stereo with a CD player. In the family room, there was an entertainment center with a large television and speakers. The family had cable TV and regularly watched programs on the Discovery Channel and Animal Planet, as well as various primetime network shows. Alicia noted that the family collected DVDs and generally bought new movies as soon as they came out on DVD. The family frequently watched television and movies at home together in the evenings and on weekends.

James shared an interest in television and movies with his family, but he was particularly passionate about music. A fan of hip-hop, James had figured out how to use a friend's computer to download songs from the Internet and to burn CDs. After our interview, he proudly showed us a collection of over 200 CDs that were ‘homemade’ in this way. James's interest-driven participation in music was supported by his parents, who had promised him an iPod as a graduation gift. However, the anticipation of his iPod was not without anxiety for James, who worried that his parents would change their minds if he did not achieve satisfactory grades or if they decided it was too big of an expense. In the meantime, James cleverly fashioned a makeshift MP3 player using a digital camera borrowed from his aunt. The camera's memory card could store several minutes of video, allowing James to store music videos that he recorded from MTV and BET off the television in his bedroom. The pocket-sized camera had a headphone jack, making it a handy substitute for an iPod. During the time we were in the house, we saw James listening to music on the digital camera a few different times. Although James was eagerly anticipating his iPod graduation gift, he also claimed to like listening to music via his camera (at least for the time being).

Despite the family's interest and investment in media and technology such as music, television, and DVDs, they did not have a computer at home. In our conversations with Alicia and Martin, it became apparent that the decision to purchase a computer was influenced by both economics and a desire to have control over their children's access to information online. Alicia explained that while she and Martin wanted their son to be able to use a computer to go online and do schoolwork, they were worried about “how vulnerable children are to the computer” and “the dangers of having a computer.” In particular, she said she feared, “all those chat rooms and people just getting online and logging on to the children,” as well as all the sexual content that she perceived to be “everywhere you go” online. Also, one of James's cousins had recently created a MySpace profile that was, according to Alicia and Martin, “gothic and very violent and very gruesome.” They worried that having a computer at home might encourage James to get involved in such activities. The high cost of Internet service was also a concern. Alicia explained that they were still debating whether or not they could afford an “extra bill” for the Internet on top of the cable bill—and so far the answer was no. For the time being, they were content to let their son access the Internet at school and occasionally at their downstairs neighbor's apartment. In particular, they said they liked the fact that the neighbor was rarely home and James was only able to go online a couple times a week, for a few minutes at a time. This way, they explained, their son didn't have enough time to get into trouble online or to post inappropriate material.

Alicia and Martin's approach to “parenting the Internet” (Eastin, Greenberg, & Hofschire, 2006) represented a well-intentioned effort to address the competing goals of providing their son with access to the Internet, protecting their son from perceived risks of going online, and avoiding the high cost of buying and maintaining a computer and Internet service. Despite the challenges he faced in getting online without a computer and Internet access at home, James frequently shared information with his classmates about websites—in particular, sites about cars and hip-hop as well as sites that provided access to free Flash games. Outside school, James actively maintained a MySpace page despite his limited Internet access, which he said he liked to use to “chat” with cousins and friends from school. Some of his friends had taught him how to use the site and his cousin had helped him customize his page. When we asked him if there were programs besides MySpace he liked to use to talk to friends, he explained, “That's the only site I know.” James's parochial knowledge and experience of the Internet challenges some common assumptions made about ‘digital natives,’ for example the extent to which young people are fluent and self-directed in their use of technology. Unlike teens that have access to computers at home, as well as privacy and time to use them in the pursuit of their own interests, James's experience using the computer was public, limited in time, and often structured by others' interests, goals, or assignments. In this way, James's computer use stands in contrast to his use of other media, such as television and movies, in which he engaged in a deeper and more sustained manner.

James's parents noted that he had been placed in special education because of his problematic behavior at school. In classroom observations, it was evident that James had difficulty focusing on academic work and was easily frustrated with assignments. He engaged with certain aspects of the media production assignments, such as acting and joking with friends during scriptwriting and video production activities. However, James remained largely disengaged in the adult-driven, academic aspects of media production that involved research and writing tasks. Although the incorporation of media production into instruction appeared to do little to capture James's interest, his teachers noted a slight improvement in his attendance and behavior when working on media projects. Recognizing that James would likely face similar behavioral challenges the following year in high school, Alicia and Martin were attempting to register him at a high school with a good baseball program, even though that school was not the one to which James was assigned. With baseball as a motivation for maintaining a passing grade point average and staying out of trouble and with the support of the special education program, Alicia and Martin believed that James had a good chance of success in high school.

In the CMS classroom, James's motivation came not from baseball, but through finding ways to leverage his access to the school laptops to carry out tasks that were important to him. Just as he carefully used his limited access to his neighbor's computer to maintain a MySpace page, he used the laptops at school to pursue his interest in music. James spent much of his time in class playing CDs, researching bands (to the extent that he could given the district's filtering software), and sharing information and music with friends. He introduced many of his classmates to new music, initiated trades with other students who had CDs he wanted, and showed other students how to burn CDs. Even though these youth-driven activities were not sanctioned parts of the media production assignments and were done while the teachers had their backs turned, they appeared to give James a sense of power and success in the classroom. He was viewed by other students as having expert (or at least, valued) knowledge of music and was called upon to give suggestions for the soundtracks of other students' projects.

James was also influential in incorporating other kinds of popular culture references into class media projects. Because the media projects were adult-driven—it was the teachers who determined both the form and content of projects—slipping popular culture references into projects can be seen as an effort (albeit a small one) on the part of students to make the media projects their own. This small act of subverting the adult agenda and discourses involved in the project was important to some students, especially James, in finding pleasure and meaning in the assignment and its outcome. As Buckingham and Sefton-Green have argued (1994), media production in school, “arises from a negotiation between the interests of the peer group” and what counts as legitimate by school standards (Buckingham, 2003, p. 128). In the process, “students frequently walk a difficult line between ‘following school rules' and ‘playing to the gallery,’ that is, to the peer audience” (p. 136). As a result, student projects often reflect “hybrid or mutated genres” that incorporate references to school culture, popular media, and peer culture simultaneously.

One example of incorporating popular culture references into the video production process can be seen in the antidrug public service announcement produced by James and two male classmates. Although the main dialogue of the video delivers an unambiguous antimarijuana message that reflects adult-approved discourse about abstaining from drugs, James and his classmates built into their video popular culture references that tested the boundaries of school acceptability. For example, one of the characters in the video refers to another character as “Mr. Fatty Fat, Fat Chick,” a line lifted from an episode of the television program South Park. Although such a line would have been unacceptable if uttered to one another in the classroom, it was allowed into the video, much to the delight of the students, who recalled it as their favorite part of the video. In this way, the boys brought humor and popular culture that they found relevant into the piece in a way they thought their friends would enjoy—at the same time that they addressed the adult-sanctioned antidrug messages. It is important to note that this video is one of the only media projects that James completed during the school year. Although he began a number of projects, he usually ran out of time before completing them. This video, however, he proudly screened for the class and several parents (including his own father) during a fieldtrip to the researchers' university at the end of the school year.

Although James did not have a computer and Internet access at home, he leveraged the access he did have to the technology at friends' homes and at school to maintain a MySpace page, to play games, and to search for information about topics he found interesting. In addition, he navigated social impediments to access, including his parents' anxieties about him going online and classroom/school rules for computer use, in order to maximize his access to technology outside of his home. Despite barriers to access, James used digital media in a number of meaningful ways; for example, he used digital media to express elements of his identity, to communicate with other people, and to create a more comfortable working environment in the classroom. While the media production assignments appeared to be, on the whole, not particularly meaningful to James, the access he had to digital media at school was important because it was his opportunity to use a computer for an extended amount of time. Furthermore, although James did not have the kind of privacy and autonomy that more privileged computer users expect, the computer access he did have was indeed semiprivate and autonomous.5

James's efforts to piece together access to technology he did not have at home stands in contrast to that of Michelle Vargas, a classmate at CMS. Michelle was one of three students in our study who had a working computer and Internet access at home. However, just as James's story points to the technical, social, and cultural constraints that may be faced by young people who do not have easy or consistent access to technology, Michelle's story highlights the constraints that exist even when access to technology is available at home.

Sharing and Debating Access to Digital Media: The Case of Michelle Vargas

Michelle was 12 years old at the time of our interview, which took place on one of the first days of her summer vacation following seventh grade. Michelle had been in special education primarily because she had reading difficulties and was behind academically. Unlike James, however, she had tried hard to be a ‘good student' and consistently sought approval from her teachers. Michelle lived with her mother, Rose, who had immigrated to the U.S. from El Salvador several years before she was born. Michelle and Rose shared a bedroom in an immaculately clean apartment and rented their second bedroom to an older cousin and her family. Rose worked as the apartment manager for the complex where they lived, and sometimes cleaned houses on the weekends. She described herself as both a strict and loving mom. Rose explained, “I like her [Michelle] to be with me. I am like her girlfriend, her sister, her mom, all of that.” When Michelle wasn't at school, she spent most of her free time hanging out at home, often with her mom. On weekends, Michelle sometimes helped Rose at work or attended family events such as birthday parties. The two also enjoyed watching movies together at home. Although Michelle had several close friends, including two girls from her class whom she considered her best friends, she rarely saw them outside of school because of transportation and time issues. None of the girls lived close enough to one another to get together without traveling by car or bus. Additionally, she and her friends often had other commitments after school, such as caring for younger siblings and cousins, household chores, and homework. Michelle occasionally talked on the phone with her friends; however, most of their socializing took place at school.

Spending most of her out-of-school time at home meant that Michelle spent a good deal of time with media, including television, music, books, video games, and online media. Michelle was not allowed to watch TV on school days, with two exceptions. She was allowed to watch the news and, every night after dinner, she and her mom had a special date to watch La Tremenda, a popular Spanish-language telenovela (soap opera). At the end of the school week the TV restrictions were lifted. As Michelle explained, “On Fridays, my mom can't tell me nothing, because I'm watching TV!” The family had cable television and Michelle's favorite programs were “kid shows” on Nickelodeon and the Disney Channel such as Phil of the Future, That's So Raven, Danny Phantom, The Suite Life of Zach and Cody, Hannah Montana, and the TV movie High School Musical. Her friends were also fans of the same shows, and she explained how sometimes she called one of her friends to say, “Turn it on, turn it on,” so they could watch a show “together” at the same time.

Michelle also liked to listen to music while hanging out in her room or doing chores. She had a CD player but, like other young people in our study, longed for an iPod. She claimed to like “any kind of music, except country,” and to get most of her music by downloading it from the Internet—either buying it from iTunes or getting it for free from Limewire. She also told us how she liked to use the computer to make CDs to give to her friends. Although Michelle had access to music and knew how to find and share it, she rarely talked about music in the classroom outside of her small group of close girlfriends.

Michelle and Rose, her mother, shared a desktop computer that was set up on a small desk in the kitchen. Rose purchased the computer and paid the high cost of broadband Internet because she hoped it could help Michelle complete her homework. Michelle's media use was highly structured by her mother's rules and expectations. Unlike James, who spent a few after-school hours each week at home by himself and who was allowed to visit friends within the apartment complex by himself, Michelle attended an after school program nearly every day, arriving home at 4 or 5 pm, and spent little time at home unsupervised by her mother. Like James, Michelle carefully negotiated her access to media and technology. In Michelle's case, however, the negotiation was not about obtaining physical access to a computer, but negotiating the rules, expectations, and fears her mother had about technology.

When Michelle was allowed to go online for fun, one of her favorite things to do was to play web-based games incorporating her favorite shows and characters on the Disney Channel and Nickelodeon websites. Sometimes, Michelle practiced select media production skills she learned at school. For example, one assignment challenged students to use PowerPoint to manipulate digital photos, transforming them into creative illustrations for an original poem. Using similar techniques at home, Michelle cleverly enhanced photos of her and her friends. Printouts of her handiwork were displayed around the apartment; she also shared copies with her friends at school. Michelle also shared her computer skills with her mom. Rose had little background knowledge about computers, but more recently Michelle had been teaching her how to send email, to pay bills online, and to create birthday cards for friends. According to Rose, “Michelle has taught me everything about the computer… everything she has learned at school.”

Having a computer and Internet access at home provided Michelle with more opportunities to go online than were available to many of her classmates. However, her online access was highly regulated and supervised by her mother, allowing her less freedom to explore her own interests than may be enjoyed by other teens (Ito et al., forthcoming). Although she believed that having the computer was beneficial, Rose had two major concerns about the Internet. She worried that Michelle would get distracted from her homework by playing games and talking to friends online, and she worried about the threat of sexual predators.6 As a result of her concerns, Rose was cautious about letting Michelle go online. She explained to us, for example, how she kept the computer in the living room area so she could keep an eye on what Michelle was doing online. When she had to leave Michelle alone in the house, even for a few minutes, she said she would physically disconnect the modem and either take the cord with her or hide the modem. Rose explained that the only strategy she felt comfortable with was direct, physical supervision of her daughter's time online. Several other parents in our study, who also lacked basic knowledge of and comfort with computers, echoed similar strategies for regulating their children's Internet use.

Michelle explained to us that she felt her mom's fears about what she was doing online was an example of her “just overreacting.” For Michelle, as for James, MySpace was a way to keep in touch with friends. She told us in her interview, “I just type to my friends. That's all I do. Like, I don't talk to other people I don't know.” She and her mother discussed the news coverage related to MySpace and online safety, and Michelle struggled to reassure her mother that she understood the risks and avoided behavior that would put her in danger. She expressed her belief that victims of online harassment are at fault for believing the information strangers give them online, saying “It's their fault, because they listen to the people that go on [to solicit other users]” and emphasized that she was “not gonna go walk into the street to someone that I don't know.” Her awareness of the risks and realities of the situation was not, however, convincing enough to Rose to ease the restrictions on Michelle's access to online content.

At school, Michelle's use of digital media was also highly structured by adults. Michelle noted in her interview that she generally liked the media production projects and that creating media at school, “just helps me learn better.” At the same time, however, she found the reading and writing part of the process difficult and disliked doing research for her productions. “I did not like that part,” she told us, “It was so boring.” Although many of the media production assignments undertaken by the class were designed with some room for personal expression, the parameters of the assignments, limited time for production, and the school's filtering software left little room for open-ended experimentation during the production process. Unlike James and some of her other classmates—who frequently brought popular culture into the classroom by playing music, playing games, and viewing websites when the teachers were not looking, and integrating pop culture references into their projects—Michelle generally stuck to the ‘rules’ of the assignments and focused on completing them to gain teacher approval. It was important to Michelle to meet the expectations of teachers she liked and prove that she could move out of special education. As she noted, “… sometimes I goofed around, but then I had to do the work, because [the teacher] said if we didn't finish it, we'd be stuck in [special education] class.”

Michelle's experience with technology at home and at school illustrates the strength of social constraints on young people's use of digital media. In addition to the rules and expectations set by her mother and her teachers, less visible social sanctions, such as expectations based on gender, race, and social class, appear to be particularly influential in Michelle's case. Because of the strict control over her use of digital media and her friends' lack of access, Michelle did not spend much time online engaging in friendship-driven practices or in-depth, independent exploration of her interests. Further, although she knew quite a bit about particular media and was excited and animated about the media she liked, that enthusiasm did not always come through at school. Her story points to the disconnect that can exist between home and school for students with modest access to technology and ‘mainstream’ media interests.


While digital media and networked technology are increasingly prevalent in the lives of some young people, many still struggle to gain meaningful access to technology. For low-income young people and young people of color, using the Internet for educational advancement is an important part of a social and educational equity agenda (Warschauer, 2007). Given that many schools assign homework that depends on students having access to computers or the Internet outside of school, students without home access can be at a serious disadvantage in being able to complete school assignments. It is thus understandable—and valuable—that Rose and several of the other parents in this study made concerted and persistent efforts to gain access to the Internet for their children's school-related pursuits, and that teachers worked so hard to incorporate digital media into instruction. However, for young people, meaningful access to the Internet also implies being able to go online to engage in contemporary friendship practices, participate in new media culture, and experiment and play with technology (Ito et al., forthcoming; Seiter, 2008).

The barriers to access that the families in this study confronted were in large part economic, requiring families to make choices about the amount and types of media and technology they purchased and maintained. However, as the cases of James and Michelle demonstrate, the barriers to access were also cultural. To some extent, all parents face challenges in regulating their children's online activities. Children often know more about computers than their parents, and they routinely develop strategies to subvert parental control of the Internet (Livingstone & Bober, 2006). In the case of this study, however, the difference between the computer expertise of children and their parents was vast, and the challenges parents faced in regulating their children's access to the Internet were acute. Because parents had little background knowledge about computers, it was especially difficult for them to understand the context of what their children wanted to do online, assess potential risk factors, and monitor their activities. Both James's and Michelle's parents attempted to focus their children's computer use on academics and limit their opportunities to dabble in practices perceived as less productive or riskier, such as exploring social network sites. While this represented a well-intentioned effort on the part of parents, it nevertheless contributed to limiting their children's access to online opportunities for informal learning and messing around, as well as preventing open communication between young people and their parents about their media practices.

Similarly, the barriers to meaningful access to technology at school were, by and large, social and cultural, rather than technical. Although students had access to new laptops, high-speed Internet, and multimedia production software, the assignments offered limited opportunities to connect in-school learning to students' out-of-school literacies and interests. While students enjoyed working with media production tools and software, they still remained largely disinterested in the formal school curriculum. To be more successful at using media in a way that motivates students to engage with in-school learning, this research suggests a need to look for ways to make the curriculum itself more meaningful and relevant to students. Making room in school for more open-ended, student-driven uses of media and technology should be understood as central to such an effort.

This research challenges the assumptions held by some that incorporating media into the classroom is somehow inherently motivating for students. Just as Seiter (2005) urges us to be skeptical of the drive and hype to incorporate computers and the Internet into schools, and recommends that we stay attuned to the kinds of economic and pedagogic pressures that teachers and schools face from often ill-conceived efforts to integrate technology into instruction, we suggest that similar concerns exist about incorporating media production into instruction, and we see little value in incorporating digital media into instruction in superficial ways. At the same time, we take Warschauer's (2007) charge seriously, that we should “promote multimedia literacy and information literacy in schools in ways that simultaneously develop diverse students' reading, writing, cultural literacy, and academic literacy…” (p. 44). Based on this research, we conclude that media education can help accomplish these goals if it includes production and analysis activities that connect to young people's existing knowledge and interests in media and technology, although we recognize that doing so successfully requires a great deal of innovation—and resources—often amidst challenging institutional, social, and cultural constraints.


This article reports on research funded by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation and the Annenberg Foundation. For their support and assistance in various phases of the research, thanks also to: Mizuko Ito, Heather Horst, Katynka Martinez, and other members of the Digital Youth Project research team, as well as Ann Balsamo, Chris Gilman, Tasha King, Jenn Rogla, Ellen Seiter, Andrew Syder, Alex Tarr, the USC Institute for Multimedia Literacy, the Los Angeles Unified School District Arts Education Branch, and Los Angeles area middle schools and teachers that allowed us to conduct research in their classrooms.


  • 1

    The goal of the Digital Youth Project was to gain insight into the qualitative dimensions of youth's engagement in digital media and technologies by developing a series of in-depth case studies of youth practice. The bulk of the fieldwork for the project was conducted in 2006 and 2007 and involved over thirty researchers working in numerous institutional spaces, homes, and neighborhoods (predominantly in California), as well as in a variety of online sites and interest groups. The study discussed in this article presents findings from one of these research sites.

  • 2

    Martinez is Assistant Professor in the Department of Raza Studies at San Francisco State University.

  • 3

    Total enrollments for the three schools ranged from approximately 2,000 to 3,000 students. The ethnic composition of the schools ranged from 71–95% Hispanic/Latino; 2–9% African American; 3–6% American Indian; and 0–17% White, Asian, or Pacific Islander. The schools' overall Academic Performance Index scores ranked them between 1 and 3 on a scale from 1 to 10 (with one being the lowest and ten being the highest).

  • 4

    In this article, quotes from Rose Vargas have been translated to English. Translations were conducted by external, professional translators, and then reviewed and revised for accuracy by Tripp and a second external, professional translator.

  • 5

    This is because the class used laptops, and James was able to position himself so he was often the only person looking at his screen. Because students used the same laptop each day, James was able to save his files and know that they would be there the next day.

  • 6

    Parents in our study made frequent reference to hearing alarming stories about the Internet on the news, particularly stories about MySpace. Such ‘scare stories' were widespread in 2006, contributing to a moral panic about sexual predators taking advantage of children online (boyd and Ellison, 2007).

About the Author

Lisa Tripp is Assistant Professor of School Media and Youth Services, College of Information, Florida State University and earned her Ph.D. in Communication from the University of California, San Diego. Her research focuses on digital media pedagogy, media literacy, and youth-produced media. Email: Address: 222 Magnolia Way, Tallahassee FL 32306–2100

Rebecca Herr-Stephenson is a Postdoctoral Researcher at the University of California Humanities Research Institute and earned her Ph.D. in Communication from the University of Southern California. Her research interests include teaching media production, media literacy, and youth culture. Email: Address: 307 Aldrich Hall, Irvine, CA 92697–3350

Tripp and Herr-Stephenson are co-authors with Mizuko Ito and others of the forthcoming book, Hanging Out, Messing Around, and Geeking Out: Kids Living and Learning with New Media. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.