Spotlight: Dr. S. Craig Watkins Examines Emerging Trends amongst Black Youth with Social and New Media Technologies

By Adam C. Williams III

So much of youth culture and youth popular culture today is being played out in the digital media spaces of MySpace, Facebook, Youtube, or the mobile technologies and gaming platforms. Many studies allude to the fact that Black and Latino youth are some of the highest consumers and users of several social media platforms and new media technologies. Over the last few years, and reports have surfaced to suggest that Black youth are heavy influencers of today’s social and new media market trends. Particularly, mobile technology has demonstrated popular amongst Black teens as recent studies by both the Kaiser Family Foundation and the Pew Internet & American Life Project reported numerous findings that support a notion that Black youth are early adopters and trendsetters with new media technologies.

“A lot of evidence suggests that Black and Latino youth are spending more time online than their White counterparts, spending more time with their social network sites, spending more time building their social network profiles and identities, spending more time with mobile (mobile technologies), and spending more time downloading content with mobile”.

–Dr. S. Craig Watkins (Professor of Race & Media; UT-Austin)

Black teens ages 12-17 lead the way in going online via mobile phone devices at 44%, which is more than double the rate of White teens. Also, Black youth (ages 8 to 18) spend on average nearly three hours per day (2:49 mins.) talking and texting on their phone, which was more than an hour per day more than their White counterparts. Of particular interest, is that Black youth far outpace their counterparts when it comes to consuming media via cell phones for “entertainment” purposes rather than for dialogue. Nearly 1 ½ hours per day (more than 1 hour more than their White counterpart) is spent consuming ‘entertainment media’ via their cell phones which includes: watching television, playing games, and listening to music.

Over the years as a professor in both the departments of Sociology and Radio, TV, & Film at the University of Texas at Austin, Dr. Samuel Craig Watkins has taught a range of courses which included: The Sociology of Black Americans, Hip Hop Culture, Race and Popular Culture, the History of Black American Cinema, Youth and New Media, Race and New Media, and even Videogames. With a background in Sociology and Race Relations from the University of Michigan, Dr. Watkins’ earlier studies centered on combining elements of African American youth, in particular Hip Hop culture, with popular media culture and the music/film industry. All of which compiled his dissertation and first book titled Representing: Hip Hop Culture and the Production of Black Cinema. This also provided a launching pad for his 2nd book which he discusses the holistic implications of the Hip Hop culture and generation, which was titled Hip Hop Matters: Politics, Pop Culture, and the Struggle for the Soul of a Movement.

However, over the last five or six years, as youth culture, particularly as it relates to media, has shifted more and more decisively towards digital media and new media, so to has Dr. Watkins’ studies. Because of this, over the last few years, Dr. Watkins has kept a watchful eye on various trends amongst youth demographics. In his new book, The Young and the Digital: What the Migration to Social Network Sites, Games, and Anytime, Anywhere Media Means for Our Future he gives a comprehensive perspective and viewpoint about how new media technologies have been incorporated into young people’s everyday lives and what the consequences and impacts of these technologies are. His assessments have been based on a combination of research that he’s compiled over the years, which included collecting survey data and doing in-depth interviews with young technology users, parents, teachers, and “technology enthusiasts”.

In this book, he also spends a lot of time looking at what kids are doing online, particularly in social media spaces such as their profiles on MySpace and Facebook. “We look at everything from the pictures that they post, the music and pop icons that they identify with, the stories that they write, and the identities that they craft”. From his findings, Dr. Watkins was able to conclude that these popular social sites amongst youth are “dynamic kinds of spaces”, where youth aren’t only consuming media and culture as they constantly update their profiles but “they’re also creating media and culture, as they play out these identities online”. Dr. Watkins states that it is still clear that issues of race and ethnicity, class, and education matter deeply in these social media environments. In a chapter titled Digital Gates, he outlines the interesting ways that race and class distinctions play themselves out in these spaces. Here he reports primarily on the ways in which Black youth, White youth, and Latino youth navigate their way through and identify with certain social networking groups. The distinguishing of MySpace as a space for the “digital undesirables” (poor Blacks and Latino) was by pointed out in the chapter, where many youth would use language such as “ghetto”, “dirty”, and “uncivilized” in relation to Facebook as “clean”, “safe”, and “sophisticated”.

“This whole narrative about how technology erased all those differences… and yet we still see how those offline distinctions that we make around race, class, geography, and status still matter in terms of who we build community with, who we connect with, who we talk with, and who we friend in the online world”.

Some of the earliest studies of race and social media focused on the significant disparities between those who had access to these platforms and spaces and those who didn’t (the ‘Digital Divide’), which of course placed much of the African American community (especially youth), at a severe disadvantage. Throughout the mid-1990’s, much of the discourse as well as the initiatives and policies enforced, centered on closing the gaps between internet access amongst White and Black students. But now, with the growing popularity and use of new media technologies amongst Black youth, such as cell phones and I-pods with internet capabilities as well as many of the classrooms and libraries containing computers and internet access, many believe that these gaps have significantly diminished.

However, Dr. Watkins believes that today there are more imperative issues confronting Black youth and media than just accessibility. His current research projects reflect this as he’s continuously worked alongside of The MacArthur Foundation (who back in 2006 launched a five-year, $50 million digital media and learning initiative) and now investigates how these digital technologies are changing the way youth learn, play, socialize, and participate in civic life. He argues that contemporary conversations need to transcend discussions of the digital divide and we should now begin to interrogate how youth are using these technologies and the ways that it impacts the decisions that they make in life.

“But now that kids have access to technologies that we couldn’t have imagined 5-10 years ago… I believe that some of the more interesting research that is happening is sort of moving beyond this question of access, and beginning to sort of think about this question of the quality, the degree, the nature, and the intensity of their participation”.

Dr. Watkins discusses that the interesting challenge that confronts us now, centers on how we (educators, society, etc.) leverage what we know and the technologies that the kids use, in order to empower them and to raise their awareness about their engagement with new media technology. He states that one of the things that they definitely want to do with this project will be to enhance their understanding and to document with some greater degree of precision, how Black and Latino youth (urban youth) and their environments are being empowered and/or disempowered by new media technologies.

What are they doing with this technology? What kinds of skills are they developing? Are some kids more likely to develop certain kinds of skills as opposed to other kids? As well, are some kids more likely to be consumers of this content as opposed to producers of content?

Dr. Watkins mentions that getting youth to understand that these tools are “very powerful” and can help them “enhance their lives and the people they care about” is of particular importance to him, especially in relation to knowledge about their bodies, their communities, world politics, as well as civic life.

“We feel as though that we’re being entertained, and that we’re getting away from the rigors of everyday life, but we’re also being socialized, educated, and taught about the culture, the world, and the people around us”.

For more related information please visit ‘The Young and the Digital’-



Article: ‘To Be Young, Digital, and Black’-

Video: – ‘To Be Young, Digital, and Black’- Recent Forum at Morehouse University-

Link to article/video:

Video- Recent forum at Huston-Tillotson on ‘Digital Media and Learning in Multicultural Contexts’ (Hosted by the United Negro College Fund and the MacArthur Foundation)


Link to article/Video:


Dr. Watkins’ Blog Site for ‘The Young and the Digital’-

Article- ‘The MacArthur Foundation Grants $100,000 to the United Negro College Fund for Digital Media and Learning



Document: “M2: Media in the Lives of 8 to 18 year olds”


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