My Teen Tech Week Grant Experience: Opening a dialogue with at-risk teens about how they use social media

My library is the closest library to public housing in my community. Most teens who visit the library are poor. Their city is unsafe, ranking 3 on a 1 to 100 scale, with 100 being safest. Their schools are failing. The public high school was forced to restructure after years of ranking in the lowest 5% of Michigan schools. Every week I see teens who are suspended, on probation with the juvenile system, homeless, or runaways.

Despite all this, the library’s Teen Zone is a mostly safe and positive space. Young people gather daily to use the computers for schoolwork, online games, and to catch up on what their friends are doing. Teens drop in and out of the library to see who’s hanging out. The space is abuzz with conversation and activity. We ask everyone to engage in a library activity–access the wireless, color the tattoo and mandala designs available on the table, play xbox. Anyone who learns something at a program can ask for the supplies anytime and continue creating. An active Teen Advisory Group (TAG) helps plan and host programs.

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However, providing quality programs that engage teens and allow them to experience new technology can be a challenge. As with many libraries in the U.S., the downturn in the economy saw property tax in-takes decline while the community’s needs increased. Grant money allows me to offer internships and unique programs of interest to TAG members I couldn’t otherwise, so I have applied for and received several YASLA and Michigan Arts grants. I’m always watching for grants that will allow me to provide something I hope will improve the lives of teens at my library.

When I saw the posting for the 2014 Teen Tech Week grant, two things went through my mind and shaped my proposal. First was the recent negative use of social media by teens in my community to create and distribute a “thot list” using Instagram and Facebook. It included nude pictures of young women and lists of men they’d supposedly slept with. Everyone was sharing the list in the Teen Zone. It was humiliating and led to charges against some of the creators, and it weighed heavily on my mind as I filled out the grant application. Second was the knowledge that the current technology gap between teens of varying incomes isn’t about who owns which device, but how the devices are used. Compared to middle-income teens, low-income teens are more likely to use technology in passive ways, or without guidance and direction. In my experience this means too often passively watching YouTube videos, using phones for taping fights, and social media for starting arguments, bullying and sharing content like the thot list.

My hope was to provide an opportunity for teens to be creators of digital content rather than passive users and create something positive they would share online. I chose using technology to create music. In addition to making music, I envisioned teens marketing their music online, which could naturally lead to conversations about the positive and negative uses of social media. I intended to invite someone from the Youth Violence Prevention Center at the University of Michigan to lead this conversation. I envisioned the Making and Marketing Music workshop as a series rather than a standalone event, so quality music could be produced and teens would be proud to share it. I thought the visit from the Youth Violence Prevention Center would be my way of sneaking something educational into the fun of making music…

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But I was wrong! The most rewarding and engaging part of the plan was the conversation about social media. It was difficult to get momentum going for the project because several TAG members, including the one who chose the rap artist we invited, attempted an armed carjacking and were incarcerated before the workshop began.

Eight music workshops turned out to be too many. Participants didn’t attend regularly, making it difficult to progress as a group. Many only wrote lyrics or learned about beat making and song form. They didn’t return each week to build a complete piece of music. Only two teens took home quality pieces of music to share. In hindsight, I would host a one-day music-making event, with several professionals and various stations allowing teens to experiment with the recording equipment with guidance from the professionals but not too much talk.

To fulfill the part of the plan that involved conversation about social media, the Youth Violence Prevention Center connected me with Desmond Patton, a Social Work professor who researches gangs’ use of social media in Chicago and Detroit. He brought his colleague, Katie Richards-Schuster, a youth action project specialist, to a TAG meeting. I invited members of another nonprofit’s teen leadership committee to attend as well.

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Twenty teens spent an evening eating pizza and talking about how they and their friends use social media. Desmond and Katie returned to help teens brainstorm an action plan, prompting them to think about what they could do to improve their own community. A plan was tentatively formed to create an anti-bullying app. Desmond and Katie contacted engineers at the university and I began to research funding. Although the project didn’t advance during the busy summer months at the library when we were serving free lunch to children and offering STEM and maker programs daily, I am again looking into how we can fund the app project.

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And because our library’s program brochure was published before I knew I received the grant, we held another Tech Week program I found at MakeItAtYourLibrary.org that was a big hit—arduino ambient lights. A volunteer continues to host a monthly engaging electronics project. Between all programs, we reached many teens with a variety of interests and engaged them in using and thinking about how they use technology and the internet. It was great, and the YALSA Teen Tech Week grant drove the conversations and engagement. Thank you YALSA!

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Jodi Krahnke is the Young Adult Librarian at Ypsilanti District Library’s Michigan Avenue location. She received her MLIS with a concentration in Urban Libraries from Wayne State University in 2010. Holding an undergraduate degree in sociology, she has long had a passion for social justice and believes a library is an important place for providing opportunities to engage and inspire young people in a community. ‘ Read more at http://www.michigannightlight.com/people/jodijohnson.aspx.

 

 

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