Many of today’s teens spend hours each day online communicating with friends. They visit their online friends in social network sites such as Facebook and Twitter; they share photos and videos via services such as YouTube, Vine, and Snapchat; and they send each other text messages throughout the day – and night – via their ever-present cell phones.
In a recent research grant funded by IMLS, we set out to study how public and school libraries fit into teens’ increasingly online information lives, especially when it comes to searching for information. To that end, we collected data through interviews, focus groups, and surveys from two populations of U.S. high school students. One population attends an urban public science and engineering magnet high school which is known for its award-winning integration of technology throughout the curriculum and its 1:1 laptop program. The school enrolls about 500 students, about 30% of whom are economically disadvantaged and 65% of whom are minority students. The second student population attends a suburban public high school located outside of a major U.S. metropolitan area in a different region of the country. About 55% of the students are economically disadvantaged and 75% are minorities. This second school also supports a small science and engineering magnet program within its total student body of about 2500. Our research sample from this school included both magnet and non-magnet students.
A total of 158 students from the two schools took part in the study. As a group they were heavy social media users, and the majority had used social media services such as Facebook and Twitter to ask (77%) and answer (61%) questions. More than half of the participants had asked or were willing to ask questions about 20 common information needs topics, ranging from social activities and entertainment to careers and health information. School was the most common topic they asked about online, with 77% reporting that they had used social media to ask questions about school-related topics such as homework and class scheduling.
These findings demonstrate that – contrary to common belief -- teens are not just wasting time when using social media. Often they are seeking information and sharing what they know with others. Recognizing that teens are using social media for beneficial uses such as information seeking and sharing can help libraries to better support teens’ information needs. Libraries can develop policies that support teens’ use of social media and consider providing informational content through these outlets. Library staff can also encourage teachers, school administrators, and other adults who interact with teens to consider the value of using social media for information access and sharing.