Harvard Graduate School of Education | Project Zero

The Good Play Project

Inspired by The Good Project, since 2007, our Good Play research group has been studying the relationship between the new digital media and young people’s development and sense of ethics, imagination, intimacy, and other themes.

The Good Play Project is focused on the ways young people think about, and manage, moral and ethical issues as they engage with new media, including online social networks, blogs, games, and content-sharing sites. Funded by the MacArthur Foundation’s Digital Media & Learning initiative, Good Play involves both research and the development of educational interventions. Our research has been focused on five ethical fault-lines that we believe to be ethically salient in new media environments: identity, credibility, privacy, ownership and authorship, and participation (i.e., conduct such as online speech and treatment of others). In the first phase of our project, we conducted in-depth interviews with young people ages 15-25 about their online activities, choices, dilemmas, and perspectives on these themes. In the second phase, we interviewed ‘tweens’ (youth ages 10-14) as well as parents and teachers of tweens, asking them similar questions related to the moral and ethical dimensions of online life.

Our findings suggest that while youth are often mindful of the potential effects of their online actions for themselves and for their close friends and other intimates, there is little sensitivity to how other audiences (distant, unknown individuals) may be affected by activities such as downloading, negative comments on social networks and forums, and misinformation posted on the internet. Overall, youth tend to make online decisions with an individualistic frame of mind. According to the youth we interviewed, conversations with adults often do little to promote greater alertness to the ethical dimensions of online life.  

Our Good Play research has informed educational interventions aimed at cultivating digital ethics. In collaboration with Henry Jenkins (Project New Media Literacies, USC), we developed a set of curricular materials designed to encourage reflection about the ethical dimensions of new digital media (e.g., Facebook, Twitter, blogging, online games). Our research also informed Common Sense Media's Digital Literacy and Citizenship curriculum (k-12) available at www.commonsensemedia.org/educators.

The Developing Minds and Digital Media (DM2) Project explores the intersection of human development and digital media in both cognitive and social domains. We seek to identify how today’s young people differ from youth who came of age before mobile phones, Facebook, and Twitter. Our research involves three strands: qualitative interviews and focus groups with professionals who have worked with youth for over 20 years; examination of secondary data sources; and content analyses of young people’s creative writing and artwork.

In the first phase of our project, we conducted interviews with long-standing educators to cull their observations about how current students may be different from the students they taught in the pre-digital era. In phase two, we conducted focus groups with other professionals who work with youth, including camp directors, psychologists and psychoanalysts, and religious/spiritual leaders. As described in our research reports, contemporary adolescents are frequent multi-taskers and, as a result, may have limited capacities for deep reflection. They are constantly connected with friends and parents through their digital devices, with mixed implications for relationships with these intimates and for their sense of autonomy. Overall, our interviews suggested that young people today are disinclined to take risks and, related to this, their identities are increasingly outward-focused and pragmatic.

We examined secondary data sources, such as survey studies with larger populations conducted over decades, in order to understand how young people’s senses of identity, intimacy, and imagination may be different today. Studies suggest a decline in certain markers of creativity since the 1990s and greater difficulty developing intimate relationships. We’re currently exploring whether such changes, as well as the changes identified by our interview and focus group participants, are reflected in young people’s fiction writing and artwork from 1990 to 2011. Our research team is conducting a content analysis of three sources: fiction essays published in a New-Orleans-based teen magazine, short stories produced by eighth grade youth from an independent school in the Northeast, and artwork published in the Boston-based Teen Ink magazine.

Findings from these strands of our work will be synthesized in a book. Led by Principal Investigator Howard Gardner and Project Manager Katie Davis, the book will address our broad research question: How are today’s digital youth different from their pre-digital predecessors? We will focus on changes relating to three key areas of experience: individuals’ experiences of themselves, others, and ideas – or, 1) identity, 2) intimacy, and 3) imagination. Importantly, we will reflect on whether these changes constitute seismic or normal changes.

Funding:The James and Judith K. Dimon Foundation, The John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation

Project Staff:
    Howard Gardner
    Katie Davis
    Andrea Flores
    Emma Heeschen
    Carrie James
    Julie Maier
    Margaret Rundle
    Emily Weinstein

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