A new study in the U.S. has found that time spent surfing the internet, playing games and hanging out on social networks is an important part of teenagers’ development.

Sponsored by the MacArthur Foundation, the study ran for three years and involved more than 800 teenagers and parents as part of a larger, $50 million Digital Youth Research Project dedicated to providing an “ethnographical view of how children use social media to socialize, learn and relax.” Dr. Mimi Ito, author of the report, told the BBC that the activities help kids learn to cope in the modern world.

“They are learning the technological skills and literacy needed for the contemporary world,” she said. “They are learning how to communicate online, craft a public identity, create a home page, post links. All these things were regarded as sophisticated 10 years ago but young people today take them for granted.”

She added that the opportunity to “take a deep dive into a subject” often resulted in the acquisition of knowledge beyond the original topic. “In one of my own case studies around fans of Japanese animations, some kids got involved in different video production groups or online discussion groups,” she continued. “They picked up things like the Japanese language or some fairly esoteric knowledge around video, or coding or editing.”

She also found, rather unsurprisingly, that a “digital divide” existed between those who had regular web access and those who did not, and urged parents to make themselves aware of what their children are doing on the internet, saying that while many don’t fully understand what their kids are doing online, an opportunity exists for them to provide “real guidance and help.” “Young people don’t want their parents or teachers on their MySpace or Facebook page,” she said. “But in the interest-driven side, there is a more productive role for parents and teachers to play that will help them connect with kids and their lives.”

“Learning today is becoming increasingly peer-based and networked,”added MacArthur Foundation Education Director Connie Yowell, “and this is important to consider as we begin to re-imagine education in the 21st century.”

A new study countering the results of this study is expected sometime next week.

(Thanks to Danzorz for the tip.)

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