We haven’t solved the basic problem yet.

In 2017, a Chinese news site reported that an adolescent sent ¥160 thousand tips to a woman live-streaming host and his parents didn’t know that at all (Link above). Similar things happened a couple of times already, and would highly possible happen more times in the future. So, that truly makes me think about what’s adolescents’ actual understanding of digital technologies? In order to have some clues, I interviewed an adolescent Rui (alias) who is now in the first year of high school in my hometown and had made some benefits on the internet.

First, just in case, I asked if he has internet access at home since I believe now most adolescents should have that already, and I got a “Yes” from Rui. Then, I asked him how much time he would spend on the internet on a weekday and on a weekend. I assumed that he probably has no time to spend on the internet during weekdays since the school load for Chinese students is heavy.

“Well, besides the computer science class, it would be impossible for me to get a touch on any digital device during weekdays, but the weekends would be a whole different story. On weekends, as long as I finish all my homework, I could use my phone and laptop to do anything I want.”

I didn’t feel surprised by his response since most Chinese parents have high expectations for their children, which leads to no tolerance of any distracting factor, such as the internet. Yes, the internet, although the internet could benefit students hugely, what Chinese parents focus on more is distractions caused by going online. So, Rui’s response somehow would represent most Chinese adolescents’ true thoughts and reactions due to the situation I just mentioned.

I asked him what are his favorite things to do online, and what are his favorite websites or apps. Rui said,

“Play games and watch videos, I guess. I love to surf on bilibili you know? I not only watch videos on it, but I also make videos myself sometimes and upload them on it. I actually made some money! And for games, I’ve spent so much time on Minecraft. I built a server that I could play with my friends.”

What Rui said seems to explain why Chinese parents would have such the thought I mentioned above. and he actually told me that the last summer that he would just stay in his room for hours to play Minecraft after studying outside while his Mom assumed that he is reviewing for the upcoming exam. Yes, there are too many attracting places on the internet, and compared to the heavy and boring study, having fun in the digital world instead is much easier. If there was no such pandemic of COVID-19, I believe most Chinese parents would never believe that their children could use digital technologies for study. This is an embarrassing situation because most parents of adolescents nowadays are digital immigrants and they are still in the process of adapting to all kinds of digital technologies, such as Rui’s experience that his mother sometimes would need him to solve the problems of her iPhone.

However, what I’m truly concerned about is another thing. As we all know that the internet has made relationships between people to have so many potential possibilities. Personally, I made some trustful friends online, and have met some of them in the physical world already. So I asked him if he would socialize online, and Rui told me that since he plays Minecraft and has built his own server, he would go to some online communities of Minecraft to exchange experience and play with others who play this game as well. He added that besides friends he already knows, it doesn’t matter what other strangers are because they always have the same purpose, to play this game, and that’s enough.

“I think I enjoy the feeling of strangers to approach me on the internet since they come to ask things related to games and videos I made, which is a kind of approve to me, to my abilities.”

When I asked Rui if he was approached by strangers online, and how did he feel, this was his answer. Generally, he had a very positive experience of socializing on the internet, but behind that, what I considered at that time was the problem of identity development. The appearance and development of the internet have created countless opportunities for everyone to be recognized no matter what physical identity is of a person in the physical world. This is what we called the “openness” of the web.

Digital culture illuminates participatory practices online — for example, it doesn’t just highlight what we passively consume, read and observe; it also emphasizes what we actively share, create, and contribute. (Dr. Pazurek)

Because it is in the regular semester of an academic year of Chinese schools, I haven’t had a chance to meet with Rui for a while, and at the time I started to continue my interview again, he just had a major exam and didn’t expect a good result of it. Honestly, when he answered how he enjoyed others recognize his abilities in games and video productions, I started to worry about if he could recognize himself clearly. On the internet, he could present himself as a successful video producer and game player, but in the physical world, he is merely an adolescent and a high school student, which means he has to admit that at this moment, to focus on his study is something he could not avoid. I’m not saying he could not have some hobbies, instead, he should definitely have a balance between everything. And in addition, I was concerned that does the internet make him have the idea that he could achieve everything easily.

I talked to him about some young people around his age do things like what I mentioned at the beginning of this article, and Rui said he would not do like that, but through his answer, I think he was more on the aspect of his own personal interest.

“Personally, I would not send tips to those live-streaming hosts simply because I don’t have any extra money to do that, and if use my parents’ money to do that, they would be angry and I know the consequence.”

I continued to ask what is his judgment of behaviors like these, and he could not give me an exact answer to that because he thought to use parents’ money without consent is not true, but there is no fault to pay for hobbies. I could understand what he said because as an adolescent, I can not count on that he understands every single thing of this world and takes reasonable actions after deeply thinking. However, we have no way to deny that there are too much good and bad mixing together on the internet, and as adults, there is no guarantee to make the right choice every time. Then, what adolescents should do? Regulations are not enough, and we have to teach them both sides of the internet. We can not just assume that since the ability of adolescents to learn is strong, they are all-know geniuses that know everything about the internet.

Finally, I asked him what’s his overall judgment of the internet. Rui generally has a positive attitude and said he could not imagine life without the internet. Of course, the internet is now deeply merged in people’s daily life, and we can not leave it. Rui is only one of those adolescents that grew up in this digital environment, and we would never doubt their abilities to learn to use digital technologies, but what about norms? As a student in the field of learning technologies, until last year, I merely knew things like digital citizenship and digital literacy. Could they know all these merely depend on self-learning?

Digital Identity

In conclusion, this interview has truly made me think about a big question, which is as adolescents born in this digital age and used to live with the internet, do they truly understand what the internet is? Maybe for so long, we haven’t solved the basic problem yet.

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Andy Ding

Andy Ding

Current practioner in Education and Psychology.