”What difference does it make if we are online or face to face?!”
The City of Helsinki Youth Department is conducting a four-year project with the aim of studying and developing high-quality free time for young people in lower secondary school (The Good Leisure Time Development and Research Project 2013–2017).
The project involves 12 school classes – organised activities are targeted at six classes, while the remaining six act as control groups. The young people participating in the study entered the seventh year of comprehensive school in the autumn of 2013. Target classes have a designated youth worker throughout lower secondary school (classes 7 to 9), while control classes participate in the study only.
The key objective of the project is to discover how greater opportunities for recreation and structured leisure time affect young people’s schooling and their choices of further study afterwards. But what constitutes good and high-quality leisure time for young people – are, for example, the Internet, social media and digital games high-quality or poor choices for leisure activities?
One set of research data consists of surveys conducted among young participants during both the autumn and spring semesters. The online survey conducted in the spring of 2014 was completed by 163 young people. Various surveys examined young people’s thoughts about and hopes for their leisure time. The Internet plays a very important role in young people’s leisure time – one young respondent summarised the worst possible leisure time scenario as follows: “no computer, no phone, no friends.” According to another respondent, free time is ideally spent “having fun with friends, family and acquaintances. Reading a book at home or playing Just Dance on Wii. And spending time online with my friends.”
One in four respondents selected the web as their preferred leisure activity from a list of options. Nearly as many selected being alone as their preferred leisure activity and many specified this as meaning that they prefer to spend time alone “playing TF 2” (Team Fortress 2), for example, or spending time alone “at home on the computer” or “online: on Skype and WhatsApp, and also on Facebook, MeowChat/Skype/Kik/Messenger/KakaoTalk etc”. However, spending time alone or online was not as popular among young people as spending time outside with friends, which most reported as their preferred leisure activity.
Those respondents who valued the web are allowed to spend time on it on weekdays: one in four most often spent time online after school. Many of those who enjoyed time alone at home more than going online specified that they spent time “gaming at home with friends”, “on the computer in my room” and “having LAN parties at home”. Those respondents who would rather have spent time elsewhere, not online or alone, specified that they spent time “with two friends online or outdoors”.
On the other hand, almost one in ten respondents thought that spending time online with friends was the most boring way of spending their free time. This was explained as follows: “I write too slowly to reply in time”. Boredom among young people also peaks when they have to be alone: more than one in two respondents reported that being alone is the most boring way of spending their free time.
The web can be such an important channel to the outside world that some young people may have chosen not to start a hobby that can’t be pursued in your own time, wherever you happen to be. Two per cent of the respondents stated that they had not been able to take up a desired hobby because they would not be able to pursue it from home (e.g. online) but would have to go somewhere else. In the spring 2014 survey, lack of time was the most common reason for not having hobbies, or most common obstacle to having them. In the previous survey conducted in the autumn of 2013, the same 7th-year pupils stated lack of money as the key obstacle.
The young respondents reported that they mainly go online to spend time with friends: chatting, gaming or looking at and commenting on their photographs, for example. They also use the web to listen to music, watch movies and television, read magazines, blog and draw. In addition, they use the Internet to find information and support other hobbies:
“I listen to K-pop music. It’s also my hobby and obsession. XD I listen to K-pop every day, watch the dances and learn them. We’re having a competition soon, so I need to watch the videos online frequently because my hobby is K-pop cover dance. This means that we perform covers of the dances we see in Korean music videos and I chat with my friends, download music/pictures, take pictures and upload them online.”
The Internet eliminates distances
One of the Good Leisure Time Development and Research Project’s respondents reported that she preferred to spend leisure time together with a friend “on Facebook, because she lives in our home country and I cannot talk to her in any other way”. Young people have friends and acquaintances from different schools and neighbourhoods. One in six young people participating in the project frequently live at a minimum of two different addresses. Not all are located in Helsinki; sometimes they commute to school from the nearby city of Lohja, for example, or travel to visit their other parent, for instance in Oulu or abroad. Slightly over 40% of the young people involved in the project speak a language other than Finnish at home, and more than a half of the young people who participate in structured activities have a language other than Finnish as their home language. None of the participants speak Swedish.
The Internet enables young people to keep in touch with those who are close to them, but who do not participate in their daily lives. It also permits them to make new acquaintances no matter where or when. It should be mentioned that English is the most popular school subject among the respondents. Frequent use of the web makes the benefits and joy of learning English apparent. The second most popular subject is mathematics, while the most popular practical arts and subjects include physical education and home economics, the latter being a new subject introduced at the beginning of 7th grade.
Nearly all of the young people have personal smartphones and, according to the survey, these are their most popular means of going online. Young people engage in similar activities online and offline. There is no clear boundary between life online and IRL (“in real life”) that would divide thoughts and acts into two categories governed by different kinds of logic – instead, young people like and do not like the same people and phenomena, whether these are encountered face-to-face or online. When the survey was conducted in the schools, many 7th grade pupils made the following comment: “What kind of question is this? What difference does it make if we are online or face to face?!” For example, the question “For what purpose do you most often use the web and a computer?” elicited the following response: “To spend time on it and, besides, this is a stupid question”. When asked if something was boring on the Internet, the young people’s answers included the following “nothing is boring online and, even if it is, the amount is really small”.