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How Students Meet the Challenges of Online Writing

With the proliferation of smartphones and Wi-Fi in schools and public spaces, accessing social media has never been easier for students – nor more worrying for parents and teachers. A recent survey of American teens found that 45 percent said they were online almost constantly. Parents worried about the effect of social media on school performance or social skills may respond by monitoring teens’ online activities, but such a review can do more harm than good. Instructors, on the other hand, may ban laptops or phones in the classroom to eliminate “distractions,” but this can also have unintended consequences; for example, removing students with disabilities or inadvertently decreasing student engagement.

Despite popular treatment of students as obscure ‘digital natives’, Ignoring the effects of technology, young learners often recognize its influences and limitations, which can lead to more thoughtful decisions about what to write online, for whom, and for what purpose. Students are also often aware of the special challenges of writing in online environments – challenges that are not always recognized by their instructors.

As writing teachers, we wanted to know what our students think about writing online. In the fall of 2018, we surveyed 803 undergraduates at a large public university in the Midwest about the types of online spaces they write in, the purposes and audiences they write for, what they worry about. when they write and how they react to these concerns. Our results (full results will be published this year in “College Composition and Communication ”) suggest that these young adults are just as 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. Although almost 80% have at least four accounts on social media platforms, Snapchat is the only one where more than 50% write 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 wrote. So our students are clearly not the prolific digital writers we often imagine. Indeed, the most common activity on these platforms was reading, followed by comments on other publications, suggesting a certain vigilance when writing original content. Reading allows students to take the pulse (and, perhaps, the risk) of an online conversation, while comments allow them to have a relatively low stake if they choose to participate.

A die The big fears about young adults writing online are that their activities bring them into contact with the darker aspects of online culture: predators, cyberbullies and other strangers whose responses to their still-forming opinions could have real consequences in their daily lives. Yet the students in our study seem adept at limiting their audiences to those they know and trust; most reported writing only to family and friends frequently, a trend assumed by other researchers. Despite the many communities that exist on social networks centered on affinity spaces, professional organizations or the general public, most of the participants declared that they had never written to these audiences.

Likewise, maintaining relationships with family and friends is the most common goal of writing: over 60 percent of students reported writing frequently for this purpose. Which students not to do is to write frequently for other purposes; developing professional identities, sharing information, posting creative work, and debating controversial topics were goals frequently mentioned by less than 25 percent of students. This suggests that young writers feel more comfortable with the familiar and are more cautious when it comes to more audience-oriented entities, where the stakes are higher. Even among family and friends, young writers engage in sophisticated practices to maintain a degree of privacy in networked spaces. While any digital message can in theory be shared – and ultimately read by non-intended audiences – our results suggest that most students try to control who reads their messages by writing in spaces where they have some degree of confidence. control over public access.

The myth of the digital native suggests that young adults don’t worry as much about their online writing practices as you do about their parents and teachers. But our results suggest the opposite. Students we interviewed were concerned about the reactions of target and non-target audiences, the consequences of having their writing online forever, and their ability or authority to write on a variety of topics, with less than 30% reporting that they never worry about each of these concerns.

For young online writers, these worries are not passive; in many cases, worrying about the consequences of writing online leads these editors to edit or delete articles, or even make a preventative decision. do not post. So while we may be concerned that young adults won’t think about the consequences of writing online, they are – we just can’t “see” the results in a carefully edited or deleted article.

This doesn’t mean that we should be less aware of student writing habits or less concerned about the consequences of writing online. On the contrary, we must recognize that students may be more attentive to their practices than we allow them to be.

Our conversations also need to be more complex, less focused on the consciousness of young adults – which they already have – and more on what their consciousness means for their participation as critical citizens. It might provide relief to parents to know that our study finds that students tend to avoid writing that exposes them to public scrutiny, and while this is certainly not the case with all teens and young adults, it suggests that many are sophisticated participants in an increasingly online environment. world. Nor can we blame students for their online writing practices when we don’t offer alternatives; only 18 percent of those surveyed were assigned to writing online at school. The limited scope of our participants’ writing practices could thus encourage instructors to find opportunities to show students how they could use social media for creative and civic purposes, as well as to better negotiate the potential pitfalls of public writing. Let’s take what students already know and help them use it to become active and thoughtful digital citizens.

Jathan Day and Adrienne Raw are doctoral students in the Joint English and Education program at the University of Michigan and can be contacted at [email protected] and [email protected], respectively; David Gold is Associate Professor of English, Education and Women’s Studies at the University of Michigan and can be contacted at [email protected]