At the Children's Digital Media Center in Los Angeles, we have spent the last eight years exploring life on line and the developmental implications for both adolescents and emerging adults. From the early days of chat rooms to today's pervasive use of social networking sites such as MySpace or Facebook, we have seen digital media grow and change at a rapid pace to the point where adolescents are living a large part of their life electronically - especially online. In this article, we will describe how young people use the Internet, with a focus on social network sites; discuss our assessment of risks and benefits; and provide some ideas for parents.
Research shows that adolescents use a variety of Internet applications to connect with their peers and to explore adolescent concerns such as identity and sexuality, all issues that teenagers grapple with off-line (1, 2, 3). A 2008 report by the Pew Internet & American Life Project found that 93% of teenagers go on-line and 65% use a social networking site.
Social Networking Sites
Social networking sites are an online communication tool that allows users to create a public or semi-public profile, as well as to create and view their own and other users’ online social networks (4). Unlike chat rooms, but like personal web pages, a social networking site is intrinsically tied to the individual, which means teenagers often use this medium to express themselves as well as to communicate (3, 5). Essentially, adolescents create a social network of “friends,” and post information about themselves including likes, dislikes and activities, through photos, audio, text messages, blogging and more (6). One effect of social networking is that aspects of self and social relationships that used to be quite private are now displayed for an audience of “friends”, typically over a hundred and ranging up to more than 600 (3, 6). We do not yet know the effects on human development of living in public; at the CDMC, we are working on research that examines this question.
Media portrayals of social networking sites often describe it as a dangerous place where kids are stalked by sexual predators. The truth is somewhat different. In 2009, the Berkman Center for Internet & Society at Harvard University found that, in fact, peer bullying and harassment are the most frequent threats that minors face, both online and offline. The report also found that social networking sites are not the most common space for solicitation and unwanted exposure to problematic content, but are frequently used in peer-to-peer harassment, most likely because they are broadly adopted by minors and are used primarily to reinforce pre-existing social relations (6). In addition, minors who are most in jeopardy often engage in risky behaviors and have difficulties in other parts of their lives. In other words, it is not the use of the Internet, but the teenager and his or her off-line environment that better predicts potential problems with the medium. However, the social networking site is a powerful tool that has the potential to magnify offline problems; and parents should realize that they are far from powerless.