Child sits at computer
UCI cultural anthropologist Mizuko "Mimi" Ito studies how digital media such as Facebook and video games are changing the way today's plugged-in youth live and learn. She has good news for parents worried that their kids are wasting time on smartphones and other tech gadgets. Photo illustration: Steve Zylius / UCI

Mizuko “Mimi” Ito spends a lot of time “geeking out” at her computer. She plays video games, trolls the Internet, chats, and visits social media sites such as Facebook and Twitter for hours on end.

“My kids often say, ‘What’s it like to have a normal parent?'” she says with a laugh.

Ito’s not going online to watch viral videos of talking dogs or to find out what her friends had for dinner. The cultural anthropologist and director of UC Irvine’s Digital Media & Learning Research Hub is working.

She’s examining the effect of digital media on today’s youth, who appear to be forever texting, Tweeting, posting, surfing or just hanging out on the Internet — often to their parents’ and teachers’ chagrin.

Ito has discovered that, far from being the time waster many adults think it is, new media can open up worlds of learning that aren’t always available in cash-strapped schools.

“My work is about trying to change the image of what public education can look like,” she says. “People assume that education has to take place in a classroom with a teacher and that it has to be a bitter pill. I want to focus on new media as a way to show how kids learn when they’re engaged in their own interests.”

In Hanging Out, Messing Around & Geeking Out, a book Ito wrote with other researchers who participated in a MacArthur Foundation-funded study of how young people use digital technology, she describes three modes of interaction.

Most kids, she says, go online to “hang out,” mainly by texting each other and chatting on Facebook. “That’s the default. Digital media is important to social beings in the 21st century,” Ito says, but it doesn’t usually contribute to their education.

Other adolescents are more exploratory: They “mess around” on the Internet in search of information. Ito’s 14-year-old daughter, for instance, recently wanted to make an origami lobster — and located a how-to video on YouTube.

“It’s amazing what they can find online,” Ito says. “But kids still need the support of adults. They often lack the social relationships to guide them in out-of-school learning. That’s what we feel is the missing piece.”

Even without adult guidance, a small group of youths use new media to delve deeply into a particular subject, gaining valuable knowledge and skills. They “geek out,” she says.

“Kids have all kinds of interests — music, sports, art,” she says. “One young woman was really into screenwriting, but her high school didn’t have a lot of support for that, so she found an online community where kids can get and give feedback on their writing. She eventually used those skills for writing assignments at school.”

Ito is currently exploring how to motivate more adolescents to “geek out” instead of just “hang out” — that is, to pursue interests that improve academic skills or prepare them for careers. “Most of the engaged forms of learning with new media are not happening in school,” she says.

That’s one reason she’s started studying Starcraft II: to discover what social factors help players excel at the popular online game.

“I got the idea after watching my 11-year-old son play it. Starcraft II is like chess on steroids,” Ito says. “Kids who do well at it become masters of strategy. They make choices that lead to positive cognitive outcomes, practice good time management and become adept at problem solving.

“I want to know why some kids get good at the game. Is it their parents, their peers? Have they connected to an online group? I’m asking how we can build social relationships to foster interests that have educational benefits.”

She’s working with colleagues in the MacArthur Foundation digital media & learning initiative who are building learning labs in libraries, museums and schools where students have access to adult mentors and teachers who can translate their online interests into academic achievement and civic engagement.

“I hope my work will encourage educators and parents to think more creatively,” Ito says. “Rather than telling kids, ‘Get off the computer,’ they can help them use digital media to connect to goals they share.”

Growing up in Japan and the U.S., she has seen firsthand how “geeking out” can engender success in the digital age.

“I was a very traditional learner — a Goody Two-shoes,” says Ito, who earned doctorates in anthropology and education from Stanford University. “My brother was a self-driven learner. He got interested in computer games and the Internet. He was a poster child for the geek culture. He never graduated from college, but he’s now director of the MIT Media Lab. We both benefited from our different ways of learning.”

At UCI, Ito serves as the John D. & Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation Chair in Digital Media & Learning and a professor in residence of anthropology and informatics, conducting her studies at the University of California Humanities Research Institute. A book she co-edited on otaku, an international subculture devoted to Japanese animation, was published in January. Since then, she’s been connecting with fans from all over the world who share a passion for anime — fans who might be considered geeks.

“Mimi Ito’s work has challenged conventional stereotypes on how kids best learn,” says David Theo Goldberg, director of the UC Humanities Research Institute. “Her studies make a compelling case for interest- and passion-driven learning supplemented by digital media over rote, authority- and test-driven education so readily institutionalized in public schooling. We ignore it at the peril of youth learning.”

Originally published in ZotZine Vol. 4, Iss. 7