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.
The Internet is not all about risks. It contains potential benefits as well. Research shows that the internet can provide social compensation in that a socially awkward adolescent may feel more comfortable communicating on-line and in writing than in person, and indeed may gain positive self esteem from this type of communication (1). Through the Internet, teens may also develop a community of mutual support for an unusual and potentially tragic situation such as being afflicted with cancer (5). Adolescents can also use teen health and sexuality bulletin boards to get information on topics that can be too embarrassing to discuss with parents, physicians, or even friends (11).
Let us end by putting the Internet and adolescence in a larger perspective. Human beings evolved for face-to-face communication. The presence of another person in the flesh triggers important human emotions such as empathy. We may be reducing such emotions in developing human beings by reducing face-to-face communication and augmenting electronic communication. At the same time, we all recognize that adolescents need a social life. To the extent that they have restricted access to peers in in-person situations, they will compensate using electronic means. Because of this need for a social life and the unique functions of face-to-face communication, it is important that parents take steps to ensure that their teens have plenty of opportunity for face-to-face interaction with their peers.
On the other hand, and equally important, electronic communication often enhances relations with peers while undermining family rituals and establishing intergenerational boundaries (12). Parents therefore need to make efforts to maximize family activities in order to expand their own influence through positive means. The positive influences of parents on adolescent development can take place only when parents spend time with their adolescent children.
The preceding makes it clear that there are both risks and benefits when adolescents live their lives through electronic communication, a trend that has peaked with the advent of social networking sites.
- Parents must act to remain the key influence in children’s lives by providing opportunities to socialize with peers in constructive ways and by organizing enjoyable family activities.
- By educating themselves about these new forms of communication, parents can apply appropriate rules and restrictions to adolescent’s use of the technology; however, desired results depend on combining these behaviors with parental warmth and involvement.
- Parents may also be able to use the technology to enhance communication with their children for the benefit of their adolescent children’s development and family life.
- Gross, E.F. (2004). Adolescent internet use: What we expect, what teens report. Journal of Applied Developmental Psychology, 25 (6),633-649.
- Subrahmanyam, K., Smahel, D., & Greenfield, P. M. (2006). Connecting developmental processes to the internet: Identity presentation and sexual exploration in online teen chatrooms. Developmental Psychology, 42, 395-406
- Manago, A. M., Graham M. B., Greenfield, P. M., & Salimkhan, G. (2008). Self presentation and gender on MySpace. Journal of Applied Developmental Psychology, 29, 446- 458.
- Boyd, D. M., & Ellison, N. B. (2007), Social Network Sites: Definition, History, and Scholarship. Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication, 13 (1), 210-230.
- Suzuki, L. K., & Beale, I., L. (2006). Personal web home pages of adolescents with cancer: Self-presentation, information dissemination, and interpersonal connection. Journal of Pediatric Oncology Nursing, Vol 23, No 3., 152 – 163.
- Subrahmanyam, K., Reich, S., Waechter, N., & Espinoza, G.(2008), On-line and off-line social networks: Use of social networking sites by emerging adults. Journal of Applied Developmental Psychology, 29 (6), 420-433.
- Rosen, L. D., Cheever, N. A., and Carrier, L. M.(2008), The association of parental style and parental limit setting and adolescent, Journal of Applied Developmental Psychology, 29 (6) 459-471.
- Greenfield, P. M. (2004). Inadvertent exposure to pornography on the Internet: Implications of peer-to-peer file sharing networks for child development and families. Journal of Applied Developmental Psychology, 29. (6), p. 417-419.
- Juvonen, J., Gross, E.F. (2008). Extending the school grounds? Bullying Experiences in cyber space, Journal of School Health, 78 (9), 496-505.
- Subrahmanyam, K. & Greenfield, P. G. (2008), Virtual worlds in development: Implications of social networking sites. Journal of Applied Developmental Psychology, 29. (6), p. 417-419.
- Suzuki, L. K., & Calzo, J. P. (2004). The search for peer advice in cyberspace: An examination of online teen bulletin boards about health and sexuality. Journal of Applied Developmental Psychology, 5, 685-698. (pp. 219-234). New York: Oxford University Press
- Ling, R. & Yttri, B. (2006), Control, Emancipation and Status, the mobile phone is teens’ parental and peer relationships. In R. E. Kraut, M. Brynin, & S. Kiesler (Eds.), Computers, phones, and the Internet: domesticating information technology
Yalda T. Uhls and Patricia M. Greenfield, Department of Psychology, UCLA, Children’s Digital Media Center, Los Angeles, email@example.com
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