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Q&A with Dr. S. Craig Watkins

Name: Dr. S. Craig Watkins
Title: Associate Professor in the Department of Radio Television Film in the College of Communication
Years at the university: 12

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Name: Dr. S. Craig Watkins
Title: Associate Professor in the Department of Radio Television Film in the College of Communication
Years at the university: 12
Education: Undergraduate and Ph.D. in sociology, graduate work was a combination of sociology and media studies
Hometown: Dallas

Can you give a brief summary of your new book, “The Young and the Digital: What the Migration to Social Network Sites, Games, and Anytime, Anywhere Media Means for Our Future”?
It’s a book that looks at the social impact and social consequences of technology, focusing primarily on social media. The book really tries to explore why young people have so enthusiastically embraced social media and how our behavior is changing with the technology that we are adopting.

What intrigues you about this area of research?
I’ve always been particularly interested in the way young people influence different aspects of our culture, and in many ways how that gets displayed in pop culture. It’s really become clear that young peoples’ media usage has changed. For example, television used to be the dominant technology in young people’s lives and I think that is becoming less and less so, and that is a really historic shift. What we’ve seen over the last 10 years or so is that young people are moving away from TV as the preferred media and more toward new technologies or social media, more broadly speaking. What I see happening is quite profound because it represents such a dramatic shift in our behavior, how we consume media, produce media, share media and communicate with each other.  As a media sociologist, I am especially struck by how convincingly our adoption of new communication technologies is changing long established media industries like music, print and television.

What was one particular finding that surprised you the most?
I guess there were a few, but one that really stood out for me relates to the growing question that in the age of anytime, anywhere media are we becoming less social? I was interested to see if young people were spending so much time on Facebook or texting each other that they had little time or interest in seeing each other in face-to-face situations. Our research confirmed one myth while dispelling another. It’s true that young people do spend increasing amounts of time with the social Web.  However, for most young people social media has not become a substitute for actually seeing and spending time with each other. The use of technology, I learned, is a way to fortify rather than forfeit their offline relationships. One thing that we found that challenges common perceptions is not the question, “Are we becoming less social?” but if in fact we are becoming too social. The truth is we are constantly in contact with each other. The primary draw of tools like mobile phones and social network sites is that they are so uniquely social. Young people are always connected and for them, the idea of being disconnected seems odd, because they do not know any other way. So now there is the question “Are they too social?” and does it begin to have a negative impact. Those are questions that we are beginning to deal with today.

How are today’s students different from students who didn’t grow up immersed in technology?
They are walking into the classroom armed with more personal media than any other generation of students. They are accustomed to instant information — type in a word and a wealth of information and data appear.  They also have an appetite for what I call “fast entertainment” all of those small bites of media — games, quizzes, videos — that are made available anytime and anywhere by our phones and laptops.  All of this leads to an intense competition for their time and their minds, both inside and outside the classroom.  In our conversations with students they talk about how the constant pull of social media — browsing their friend’s Facebook page or watching short video clips — makes it difficult to maintain the focus necessary to complete assignments or participate in class.

Has your own research changed the way you prepare and deliver your classes?
I think it has. A few years ago, it just became readily apparent to me that the standard lecture wasn’t sufficient. I really had to diversify my approach or at least change my instructional presence and methods. It’s a very different type of engagement now. I’ve been trying to make sure I include multimedia elements and I’m always striving to create a more participatory climate. I try to figure out ways where students not only learn from me, but also learn from each other, where they are generating more sharable content and participating more directly in the learning environment. I’m still trying to work through this, but it’s my attempt to create a classroom that’s culturally relevant and that means that it is collaborative, interactive, creative and democratic.

Do you believe all professors should change the way they teach to cater to this new generation?
I think we are moving into a situation and a moment where I do think every professor should consider trying to incorporate some of these elements — maybe not as widespread as others might — but I would argue that there should be opportunities that are explored that might create a much more interactive environment. As one educator told me, “We have 21st century kids walking into 20th century classrooms.”  We can and should do better than that.

Are you an advocate of saturating the classroom with digital technologies?
Not really, because I realize there is a balance. Even in my own classroom, I try to strike a balance between traditional and nontraditional. I don’t think we should turn our classrooms over to technology and gadgets — I don’t think that is the exclusive way to go — but try to find ways to mix it up a bit.

Overall, what does this digital landscape mean for our future?
While the platforms — Friendster, MySpace, Facebook, Twitter — may come and go, the behaviors that I have researched and that I write about in the book represent the future in so many ways, from how we elect our president to how we cultivate our personal and professional networks. Behaviors and activities that just a few short years ago were the exception — posting photos online, blogging or signing a neighborhood petition via Facebook — are quickly becoming the norm. Today we are always connected to each other or a screen of some sort, always on. A central question is how do our institutions — schools, businesses, families and government — deal with these changes?