January 17, 2009

Southern Illinoisan

Study suggests Internet social sites aren't a waste for teens

By Joe Crawford, Lee News Service

Read the full story below or view it at the the Southern Illinoisan web site.

Some might call it unproductive. Or maybe a bad habit. Or just a frivolous distraction. Or even dangerous.

Julianne Howell, a freshman at St. Joseph's Academy in St. Louis, calls her daily Facebook routine time well spent.

"It's like a social connection," she said. "It's not a waste of time. It's like talking on the phone - that isn't a waste of time."

Howell's justification for the hours she spends on the social networking site is dead on, according to a study released recently by the MacArthur Foundation. A team of researchers working on the foundation's "Digital Youth Project" concluded that interaction with new media such as Facebook is increasingly becoming an essential part of becoming a competent citizen in the digital age.

And further, all that Web surfing isn't necessarily eroding the intelligence or initiative of the young generation.

"It may look like kids are wasting a lot of time online, but they're actually learning a lot of social, technical and also media literacy skills," said Mizuko Ito, a researcher at the University of California, Irvine who led the study.

A team of researchers conducted more than 800 interviews of youths and their parents, and spent more than 5,000 hours observing teens on sites such as Facebook, MySpace and YouTube. The goal was to find out how youths use digital media, such as social networking sites and video games, to understand and participate in society.

Some of their findings should be no surprise to teens or their parents.

For instance, teens like to hang out with their friends online. They learn social skills online. They flirt online.

They develop interests, express themselves creatively, and give each other feedback - all online.

But the kicker? All that Internet time isn't rotting their brains. Actually, it's almost necessary, according to the study.

Kids denied access to new media, because their family can't afford it or because their parents, school or library restrict their access or time on social networking sites, are likely to be short on skills that members of their generation are expected to possess, the researchers concluded.

"When kids lack access to the Internet at home, and public libraries and schools block sites that are central to their social communication, youth are doubly handicapped in their efforts to participate in common culture and sociability," the study reads.

The study isn't the first to suggest youths use new media in productive ways. Another study released in September by the Pew Internet and American Life Project suggested that teens use video games to stay in touch with friends - and that some games may even encourage youths to become involved in their communities.

But that's not the impression most adults have of digital media, according to the MacArthur study. Adults largely underestimate the value of new technology and tend to view online activity as a risky or unproductive distraction.

"There hasn't been a really good understanding of how kids participate online," Ito said.

Much of the study focused on what the study calls "hanging out" online.

In the past, teens' hanging out has involved face-to-face interaction, whether at a mall, a movie theater or a friend's house. Parents have long pushed back against what can seem to be excessive, idle socializing.

But the study notes there is value to at least a reasonable amount of hanging out, be it a physical interaction or meeting up online.

"It's really about reinforcing a social connection," Ito said.

Basically, hanging out is good, at least in moderation, and kids are now doing a lot of it online.


The team of 28 researchers also made these determinations:

  • Teens expect privacy online. Even if hundreds of "friends" can see their Facebook profiles, they expect their parents to stay out.
  • Youths are mostly "hanging out" online with friends they first met in person, not strangers they met on a website.
  • Social networking sites are used to publicly signal the existence and intensity of relationships, whether with friends or romantic partners.
  • Creating profiles on social networking sites allows young people creatively express themselves and develop a visual identity. They get feedback from their peers on the same sites.
  • Teens tend to understand the social benefits of using digital media while adults often see it as a "waste of time."

Study suggests Internet social sites aren't a waste for teens

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