We've heard about the downside. The driving while texting or talking on a cell phone. The cyberbullying. Sexting. The idealized presentations of self in online profiles. The continuous partial attention that keeps us attentive to messages from our online friends while giving less to the teacher, hurting school performance.
The best answer to my question might be 'it's complicated'. Because there really are some great benefits that offset the risks to all this online socialization.
In a recent research study by the Girl Scouts, more than half of the girls surveyed indicated that their online social networking helped them feel closer to their friends. About half indicated that social networking had gotten them more involved with causes that they cared about. A study at Michigan State University found that college students with low self-esteem who were active SNS users felt more engaged with their university community than those who used SNS less often, and student SNS use strengthened their existing offline relationships. Research by Larry Rosen found that youth who spent more time on SNS were more empathetic toward their friends, in both online and offline interactions.
These are just a few of the recent studies that demonstrate that stronger, positive relationships and community engagement accrue to those who use SNS.
Do the benefits of social media and online socialization outweigh the risks? I think so. Our cell phones and the Internet are not going away. But our close friends are. Research by Robert Wilson noted that in 2004, American adults reported that their confidants (those people with whom we feel comfortable discussing matters of importance) had dropped from about 3 people to 2 over a 15 year period, a decline of nearly one-third. And about 25% of those surveyed reported they had no confidants.
A Pew Internet study, based on data collected in 2010, found similar numbers but a different trend when compared with their 2008 data: American adults were reporting slightly more confidants, and fewer reported that they had no confidants. The Internet users had more confidants than non-Internet users, and SNS users had more confidants than those who used Internet but not SNS.
This research is based on American adults, not youth, but adolescence is when many of us learn how to be in a friend relationship and how to be part of a community. Today's community, and society at large, could benefit from a greater abundance of empathy and engagement in its citizens. And I've never met anyone who couldn't use a true close friend and confidant. Have you?
Is all this online socialization a good thing? What do you think? What are you noticing in your work with youth?
-- Trudy Dunham, research fellow