Creative Teens Creating Information

Note: This is the second in a series of posts I wrote for my Masters in Library and Information Science.

Welcome to the 21st century!

We use computers for everything!

Throughout my teacher education program and tenure as an educator, I was faced with many questions regarding student learning and student behavior. Being that it was 2011 and Facebook had just been opened up to the masses, cellphones were getting smarter, and Instagram was just a glimmer on the horizon, the biggest question on the lips of every Baby Boomer teaching me how to appeal to my Millenial students was: “The internet: what do we do about it?”

Side-stepping the obvious irony of the fact that I am a Millenial and would have been teaching youngsters from my own generation and was completely flabbergasted at the conceit of my instructors that I didn’t know how to appeal to kids who were less than 10 years my junior, my instructors brought up some legitimate and often profound quandaries. At the time, the educational research wasn’t available that might tell us exactly what the internet and social media might lend to pedagogy and the academic success of our students. Indeed, some instructors embraced technology to an extreme, recommending assignments where students mapped out the entirety of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet as a series of wall posts on Facebook, while others remained dubious for obvious reasons. I won’t get into what I ultimately did to incorporate technology, as it–like most of my teaching career–was folly.

Flash forward to today and technology has done everything from making it possible to carry around a veritable library in the form of my Kindle to making it impossible for me to back out of a parking space without my backup camera. We live in interesting times, technologically. What’s more interesting, however, is the ways in which those same kiddos that would be my students now (if I were still teaching), have even greater access to the technology we were worried about eight years ago. Confounding, still, is the fact that these teenagers have managed to use the internet in cunning, new, and intriguing ways–like a bunch of Slytherins.

Small world…

Abbas and Agosto (2013) compiled a literature review that framed information-seeking behavior in young people within the contexts of Savolainen’s Everyday Life Information Seeking and Dervin’s sense-making frameworks. While research tends to skew toward the sense-making framework, Abbas and Agosto note that in early ELIS studies of young people, researchers found “the teens in their study also identified informal information sources such as family, friends, and teachers as helpful, and did not think libraries would have the information they needed” (32). This mirrors the Chatman’s concept of the small world context (as cited by Savolainen, 2010) in which information seekers rely on information and news from friends, family, and neighbors before inquiring with more “reputable” sources. This explains the fact that many teens use social media as a means of information and news. 

A different kind of source…

Abbas and Agosto also point out that emerging research in the ELIS of young people points to a trend in teens as “experts” online. In this case, many young people are finding it easier and easier to look to their peers for information, as opposed to adults with significantly more expertise. This, according to Abbas and Agosto, might bare some cultural, social, and educational significance. For example, Ito et al. (2008, 2010) point to the development of “participation genres” that help shape the digital world, it’s practices and cultural mores. These genres are considerably less rigid than the usual social barriers that exist in offline society, making for greater ease of access to information and communication (as cited in Abbas and Agosto, 2013). This ease of access further supports Dresang and Koh’s (2009) expanded Radical Change Theory, in which information seeking in the digital age bends toward breaking down barriers between users and creators (Interactivity), users and other users (Connectivity), and users and information (Access). 

Users who create information

Harlan, Bruce, and Lupton (2012) explore the information-seeking behaviors of a very specific subset of teens: teenage creatives. These are “kids” who have managed to leverage their natural technological prowess as digital natives to create content for their peers and the wider digital community to consume. While their information needs might differ from their peer group, their informational strategy is virtually the same: find a peer who can be deemed an “expert,” and use their work as inspiration and their council as information. The teen creatives (respondents) in Harlan, Bruce, and Lupton’s study overwhelmingly describe how they go about first finding their experts, anoint them as such, and glean information from them, and to the non-Digital Native (or Digital Immigrant), it all seems random. 

It seems random because, in many ways, it is. When the teen creative is first preparing to make something to share (blog, art, music, or video), they engage in what Harlan, Bruce, and Lupton call “Serendipitous Encountering.” This is the process in which the teen “browses” various platforms for inspiration. Platforms cited include Wikipedia, books, movies, television shows, and sites that cater to content creation such as DeviantArt and Youtube. As they browse, creatives also compile information pertaining to style, form, technique, and the social mores in place on the possible digital platforms where they might display their work. Some respondents even described “playing around” with technology as they create content to learn the technical side of their practice. From there, they move to more directed searching to solve identified problems and seek the advice of experts. How do they know where to find these experts? The very communities they hope to engage in. In many instances, respondents describe turning to established creatives they already follow for information and guidance, assuming their authority. This authority has many markers: “popularity within a community, self-confidence of the information provider, and whether or not the initial information provided was helpful” (579), were among the most notable markers of the digital “expert.”

Users as information

As we hurtle farther and farther into the Digital Age, users challenge more and more informational barriers. Most recently is that between teenage digital information users and the information itself. While many teens use modern technology (namely social media) as a means of content creation (via blogs, digital art, videos, etc), most teens use the platform to present as information an aspect of themselves that is completely unique to the user: their identity. Agosto and Abbas (2013) explain that for as enduring as digital content is, many teens take advantage of the opportunity to create, develop, and experiment with their identities. Palfrey and Gasser (2016) describe the many ways a teen can create their identity as well as how they might be able to alter that identity by taking both subtle and dramatic actions:

[The teen] can now create a new identity and go into an online environment where people do not know who she is, at least for a while. She can start using applications to (pseudo-)anonymously create and view discussion threads within a certain radius, such as Yik Yak or Whisper, or she can share anonymous text-based posts and images with others through a mobile application like After School. She might also create a new profile of herself on a more common social media platform, such as Facebook. Most likely, she will actually start creating new profiles on multiple platforms and diversify the social media platforms she uses. (22).

The kids are all right…we think…

Most adults might look at the behaviors outlined above and worry about teenager safety online. While teens might find it easy to engage with their peers and adjust their identities to suit moods, life phases, or specific contexts, adults understand that everything that occurs online is permanent and vulnerable. We understand that all content, whether personal or developed with an audience in mind will never go away. As popular rap artist, Childish Gambino once put it, “Because the internet, mistakes are forever” (2013). No matter what a user does or how a user might seek to change their online persona, all versions and all mistakes will be held indelible on the web. For this reason, we might worry that the things our children and young adults post on social media will forever haunt them and might affect things like prospective college admissions or professional advancement. Further, we might also worry that this information might make our young people vulnerable to bad-actors as seemingly benign as digital marketers and as threatening as predators. We might worry, and indeed we have good cause to. Palfrey and Gasser advocate for better adult diligence in monitoring young people’s digital habits and Abbas and Agosto are among many scholars who encourage educators and librarians to incorporate more digital literacy development in their curricula and programming. That said, adults should be careful not to overreact. While they encourage adult diligence in protecting young people from the potential risks of digital participation, Agosto and Abbas (2013) also explain that our fears might not be as warranted as we believe. 

Most researchers recognize that there is an element of risk involved in use. Multiple studies have found that adolescents themselves are also aware that SNS use can be risky (e.g., Agosto and Abbas 2011; Hundley and Shyles 2010; Livingstone 2008; Mallan 2009). Perhaps reflecting adult attitudes and popular media representations, many youth think of SNS as the most risky digital tools (Hundley and Shyles 2010). Even younger teens, aged 10 to 14, share a widespread awareness of potential risks (Clarke 2009) (55).

What we have come to understand as the normal Modus Operandi of teens online–encountering and engaging with strangers–is nothing more than a stereotype. Studies have found that most young people will not “Friend” or “Follow” other social media users unless they know them offline first. This makes the modern teenager more aware and wary of online privacy concerns than most adults who actively seek to broaden their social circles online by connecting with strangers. It is to be understood, then, that while teens operate as a larger demographic online, making them vulnerable to all the negative consequences of an online presence, their technological savvy affords them a certain amount of reasonable trepidation and the skills needed to protect themselves. 

PS: In case you’re wondering, this is the Childish Gambino song I referenced above (nb: It has some possibly objectionable content)


Abbas, J., & Agosto, D.E. (2013). Everyday life information behavior of young people. In J.A. Large & J. Beheshit (Eds.), The information behavior of a new generation: Children and teens in the 21st century (31-40). Lanham, Maryland : Scarecrow Press.

Agosto, D.E., & Abbas, J. (2013). Youth and online social networking. In J.A. Large & J. Beheshit (Eds.), The information behavior of a new generation: Children and teens in the 21st century (50-59). Lanham, Maryland : Scarecrow Press.

Dresang, E.T, & Koh, K. (2009). Radical change theory, youth information behavior, and school libraries. Library Trends, 58(1), 26-50.

Glover, D., & Goransson, L. (2013). III. Life: The biggest troll [Recorded by Childish Gambino (Donald Glover)]. On Because the internet [CD]. New York, NY: Glassnote Records. 

Harlan, M.A., Bruce, C., Lupton, M. (2012). Teen content creators: Experiences of using information to learn. Library Trends, 60(3), 569-587.

Palfrey, J., & Gasser, U. (2016). Born digital: How children grow up in a digital age. New York, NY: Basic Books.

Savolainen, R. (2010). Everyday life information seeking. In M.J. Bates & M.N. Maack (Eds.), Encyclopedia of library and information sciences, third edition (1780-1789). Boca Raton, FL : CRC Press.

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