With the proliferation of smartphones and Wi-Fi in schools and public spaces, access to social media has never been easier for students — or more worrisome for parents and teachers. A recent survey of U.S. teens found 45 percent reporting that they are online nearly constantly. Parents worried about the effect of social media on school performance or social skills may respond by monitoring teens’ online activities, but such scrutiny may do more harm than good. Instructors, meanwhile, may ban laptops or phones in the classroom to eliminate “distractions,” but this too may have unintended consequences; for example, outing students with disabilities or inadvertently decreasing student engagement.


Despite the popular treatment of students as benighted “digital natives,” unaware of the effects of technology, young learners often recognize its influences and limitations, which may lead to more thoughtful decisions about what they write online, for whom and for what purpose. Students are also often aware of the particular challenges of writing in online environments — challenges that are not always acknowledged by their instructors.


As writing instructors, we wanted to know how our students feel about writing online. In the fall of 2018, we surveyed 803 undergraduates at a large, Midwestern public university about the kinds of online spaces they write in, the purposes and audiences for which they write, what they worry about when writing and how they respond to those worries. Our results (full findings to be published this year in “College Composition and Communication“) suggest that these young adults are as equally concerned about writing online as their parents and teachers — and that they are making thoughtful choices about their writing in response.


We asked students about their use of 11 popular online platforms. Though nearly 80 percent had four or more accounts on social media platforms, Snapchat is the only one where more than 50 percent wrote frequently — that is, on a daily or weekly basis. For the other 10 platforms, less than 25 percent of students reported writing frequently, and for all but three platforms (Facebook, Instagram and Snapchat), 60 percent of students reported never writing. Thus, our students are clearly not the prolific digital writers we often imagine. Indeed, the most common activity on these platforms was reading, followed by commenting on other posts, suggesting a certain mindfulness about the writing of original content. Reading allows students to gauge the pulse (and, perhaps, the risk) of an online conversation, while commenting allows them to have a relatively low stake should they choose to participate.


One of the great fears about young adults writing online is that their activities will bring them into contact with the darker aspects of online culture: predators, cyberbullies and unknown others whose response to their still-forming opinions might have real consequences in their everyday lives. Yet the students in our study seem adept at limiting their audience to those they know and trust; most reported writing frequently only to family and friends, a trend hypothesized by other researchers. Despite the many communities that exist on social media centered on affinity spaces, professional organizations or the wider public, most participants reported never writing to these audiences.


Similarly, maintaining relationships with family and friends is the most common purpose for writing: Over 60 percent of students reported writing frequently for this purpose. What students don’t do is write frequently for other purposes; developing professional identities, sharing information, posting creative work and debating controversial topics were purposes reported frequently by less than 25 percent of students. This suggests that young writers feel most comfortable with the familiar and that they are more cautious when it comes to more public-facing entities, for which the stakes are higher. Even among family and friends, young writers engage in sophisticated practices to maintain a degree of privacy in networked spaces. Though any digital post can in theory be shared — and wind up read by unintended audiences — our findings suggest that most students try to control who reads their posts by writing in spaces where they have some degree of control over audience access.


The myth of the digital native suggests that young adults don’t worry about their online writing practices nearly as much as their parents and teachers. But our results suggest otherwise. The students we surveyed worry about the reactions of both intended and unintended audiences, the consequences of their writing being online forever and their ability or authority to write on various topics, with less than 30 percent reporting they never worry about each of these concerns.


For young writers online, these worries aren’t passive; in many cases, worry about the consequences of online writing leads these writers to edit or delete posts, or even to decide preemptively not to post. So while we might fear that young adults aren’t thinking about the consequences of writing online, they are — we just can’t “see” the results in a carefully edited or deleted post.


This doesn’t mean we should be any less aware of students’ writing habits or less concerned about the consequences of writing online. Rather, we must recognize that students may be more thoughtful about their practices than we’ve been giving them credit for. 


Our conversations must be likewise more complex, focused less on young adults’ awareness — which they already have — and more on what their awareness means for their participation as critical citizens. It might relieve parents to know that our study finds students tend to avoid writing that puts them at risk for public scrutiny, and while this is certainly not true of all teens and young adults, it does suggest that many are discerning participants in an increasingly online world. Nor we can fault students for their online writing practices when we are not offering alternatives; only 18 percent of those we surveyed have been assigned online writing in school. Our participants’ limited scope of writing practices might thus encourage instructors to find opportunities for showing students how they might use social media for creative and civic purposes, as well as better negotiate the potential pitfalls of public writing. Let’s leverage what students already know and help them use it to become active, thoughtful digital citizens.


Jathan Day and Adrienne Raw are doctoral candidates in the Joint Program in English and Education at the University of Michigan and can be reached at jedayak@umich.edu and araw@umich.edu, respectively; David Gold is Associate Professor of English, Education, and Women’s Studies at the University of Michigan and can be reached at dpg@umich.edu.

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