Teens as Information-Mediaries: An Investigation of Teens, Technology, and Design

Today, we often take for granted how teens use technology. It seems to be embedded into their every day lives and something they pick up easily. But have we ever wondered how teens use technology to help others every day, especially others who do not understand technology as well? A group of researchers at the University of Washington’s iSchool are investigating these teens, whom they refer to as “info-mediaries” (InfoMes). Karen Fisher, Philip Fawcett, Ann Bishop, and Lassana Magassa are working with mainly groups of ethnic minority teens in the Seattle area to gain a better understanding of how teens, as information mediaries are using information and technology to help others.

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My group working on our app. We are in the visual stages where we are drawing out what our problem is.

To gain this insight, the research team created Teen Design Days (see video link for a longer explanation). This is a three-day workshop where the teens gathered to discuss, learn, and explore how they help people in their social networks with information and technology. The teens are paid for their time and by the end of the workshop, will have created a design project that would help them. The design days are structured around the developmental needs for teens, identified by J. Davidson and D. Koppenhaver in their 1992 publication, Adolescent Literacy as “physical activity, competence and achievement, self-definition, creative expression, positive social interaction, structure, and clear limits.” This means that along with the learning, the teens take an active role in shaping the outcome of the workshop. From designing the rules and expectations, to participating in “light-and-lively” activities (physical activity component), the teens are truly front and center. As they begin to move from discussing their role as information mediaries to more fully fleshing out designs and solutions to improve their InfoMe work, the teens talk with each other, share ideas, and revise their design.

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Our prototype app, Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright.

From a research point of view, these design days allow the group to collect large amounts of data in a short time, create friendships with the youth they work with and the larger community as a whole, and get an insight into what the teens are facing on a daily basis and what ideas they have to solve these problems.

One of the researchers, Ann Bishop, made a visit to University of Illinois in early October to share InfoMe. I attended one of her presentations in which she gave an outline of their research. At the end of the session, the group expressed interest in participating in the “train-the-trainer” workshop model. We hoped that a session like that would give us ideas on how to design similar programs for the teens we currently serve.

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Telling the story of our problem (the stress of going home and visiting family and friends).

Our train-the-trainer workshop took place over a three-and-a-half hour time block at the Champaign Public Library. Bishop led us through a condensed design workshop, which included brainstorming problems we encounter daily and then splitting us into three groups based on the type of problems we identified. My group looked at the problem of visiting family and the hassles and stress that we confront. Through critical thinking, some storytelling, and using our limited drawing abilities (see photo, complete with stick figures), we more clearly defined our problem and then moved into thinking about what could help us out. My group created the beginnings of an app; one that would allow for family and friends to see your schedule when you’re visiting, for you to track your flight or train, and also a spot for stress relieving activities such as calming music or cat photos (whatever floats your boat). We created a prototype and if we had more time, would have continued to refine the app based on feedback from the rest of the group. When I left the workshop, I was energized and excited about the possibility of this for the future.

I believe the ideas behind InfoMe can be applied in our libraries. Not only is there potential for new designs to be brought forth, but also for teens to collaborate, and for librarians to gain insight into the teens they serve. I’m looking forward to following InfoMe and seeing what other insights they uncover with future Teen Design Days. For more information, make sure to visit their website, and read their various publications.

About Hailley Fargo

Hi, I’m a new professional working as a Reference and Instruction Librarian at Penn State University. As someone who provides reference to undergraduate students and teach information literacy to primarily freshman, I’m curious about the intersections of the work of YALSA and academic libraries (and how we can collaborate and work together to help our teens). In my spare time, I like to bike, read memoirs, watch TV shows, and consider myself an oatmeal connoisseur.

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