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.
The Role of Parenting in Technology Use
Indeed, parents can have an important influence in reducing teens’ risky behaviors with social networking sites. In recent research, teens who perceived their parents to be indulgent (warm and involvement, but low in strictness and supervision) reported the most risky online behavior such as meeting someone in person they had first met online (7). Teens who perceived their parents as authoritative (warm and involved, as well as high in strictness and supervision) reported the lowest frequency of this risky behavior. Authoritative parenting also involves open lines of communication between parent and child.
We know that open parent-child communication reduces risky and antisocial behavior induced by media such as TV that present sexualized and aggressive content (8). We therefore highly recommend a parenting style that combines warmth, supervision, and open communication between parent and child. One important means of parental supervision is to place a computer in a central area, rather than in the child’s room.
In addition, MySpace and Facebook present new opportunities for parent-child child communication and parental supervision. Once a young person posts a MySpace or Facebook page, their lives are public and open, not kept hidden away in a secret diary. If a parent is able to access their child’s page, he or she can use it as a means to interact and learn more about the child. For example, if the teenager is open to allowing the parent to be a “friend,” parents can join their teenager’s network and monitor their communication, just as other friends do. In order to become a teenager’s “friend,” a parent will need to create his or her own social networking site page; doing so may turn out to be a means to understand the nature of this communication tool. Ideally, parents should be able to discuss with their children the positive and negative influences of the site, as well as what is appropriate for “public” consumption and what is inappropriate and should be kept private and offline. For example, an adolescent may not understand that something posted online can be accessed by future employers, college recruiters and others.
Cyber-bullying may appear especially frightening to parents because it involves communication technologies with which they are unfamiliar. Research has found that cyberspace may not function as a separate risky environment but rather as an extension of the school grounds (9). For example, in today’s world, a teenager who is bullied at school can also be bullied at home, while on the computer. In fact, a majority of adolescents who experience cyber-bullying know the perpetrator from their offline world. These scientists also found that ninety percent of children do not tell an adult about their experience with cyber-bullying primarily because of fear of parental restrictions.
One useful feature of social networking sites is that if a teenager is feeling harassed by someone, they can choose to stop further communication from that person by blocking screen names. Juvonen and Gross found that many adolescents do not use such procedures to protect themselves, perhaps because they are unaware that they are available (9). In addition, privacy measures have given adolescent users a great deal of control over who views their profiles. Recently, MySpace has restricted the ability of users over the age of 18 to become friends with younger users (10). More safety measures such as these are being added all of the time.
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Reprinted with permission of CDMCLA.