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Is all this online socialization a good thing?

By Trudy Dunham

Teens are texters. They almost all have cell phones, which they are more likely to use to text than call their friends, on average about 50 times a day. They are heavy users of the Internet, and of social networking sites (SNS). Is all this online socialization a good thing?

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, former research fellow

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  1. I just got home from my weekly dinner with my girlfriends and we were all complaining about how technology has changed the way we interact. One friend talked about how she thinks her teenage son is addicted to text messaging. Scary. Another said she was just out to dinner with her son, who is nearly 30, and he had his cell phone out at the dinner table. How rude. And I mentioned that I knew "grown adults" that even in meetings have their phone out. How disruptive.
    Nonetheless, I agree with Trudy that digital communication, whether via text, email or social networking sites is not going away no matter what any of us think or feel. Accept the things we cannot change... So the issue is how to make it beneficial and safe. And remember that, while there are generational differences in terms of intensity and frequency of use, this is not just a "teen" issue; adults text while driving, spend oodles of time on SNS and, unfortunately imbibe in sexting (think: recent MN Viking quarterback).
    In truth, while I think certain behaviors are rude or disrespectful, I love seeing photos of and "talking" to friends and family on facebook, and seeing videos of same on youtube. Frankly, my sisters and I learned how to talk at a feelings level first through email, which made it easier to do face to face. Sad, for sure, but true. We are still creating social norms around what is acceptable in what situations and your blog Trudy gives us all the opportunity to be aware and intentional about how we accept and shape these norms.

  2. Perhaps some large part is just a matter of rudeness. What if we beef up our etiquette training (and netiquette, for those online encounters)? Would we be better about attending to those who are physically around us as priority 1, and save interacting via the mobile device when we aren't "with someone" (or at least excusing ourselves from the table or group to respond).? I was taught that it is rude to ignore someone in your company, or to carry on a group conversation that excludes someone present. Have our standards changed? I admit I don't mind having the phone out so much as I mind having people respond to non-emergency texts and calls. And I agree, Beki, that the personal sharing of stories, photos and life details has been greatly enhanced by the technology, and I really appreciate it!

  3. This is an interesting topic. We have found in our work with high school youth that getting in touch with them means texting. They are checking e-mail less often and don't necessarily answer a call. The good thing is we can remind them to attend meetings in a more immediate way and they show up on time. The downside is for staff who do not use texting or have cell phones. Yes, it is true; there are still people who do not have cell phones. I know from personal experience with my grand daughters that they do not respond to phone calls, but they will answer a text even if it is just one work like yes, no or ok.
    I also have a problem withe cell phones or computers at the table. One time we were having dinner wth my oldest grand daughter and her friends and one of the young adults brought a computer to the table. Another young adult said, "so are you going to introduce us to your friend?" The computer was put away. I did not have to say anything. So, I know that it is not just an old foggy idea that it is rude to have your technology at the table.

  4. This is a really fascinating topic - thanks for sharing those great resources and your own thoughts, Trudy and respondents. I have heard (read) someplace that young people who are or feel different from their peers (e.g. GLBT and other minority youth) have found SNS to be places where they find people that they can connect to in ways they cannot in their schools and communities. When I think of the lack of diversity and lower tolerance for same in some rural communities across the nation (obviously not all rural communities, and not just in rural communities!), it seems that online is the place for many youth to find like-minded or more accepting people. Same for finding people with similar interests - there just more people online then in a small community, and some youth may be able to find people with whom they want more to interact (and confide) more easily then they can in face-to-face settings.
    I suspect that we're just at the dawn of this form of communication, and it will take us a while to figure out how to best use it to our social advantage and how to create shared norms regarding its use (netiquette and use in front of others).
    We're pioneers in a whole new landscape! Here's to enjoying the adventure!

  5. Jeri - love the solution of "introducing us to your texting friend" as a way to gracefully deal with the sidebar conversations at the dinner table! Thanks for sharing. My experience agrees with yours - texting is the way to reach teens today.
    Heidi: agree we are at the dawn, but it will likely keep changing so I think we are stuck at dawn, or at least in perpetual beta!
    I saw an article about a new library in Chicago - that really takes advantage of both the geographical presence and the digital presence to give youth a chance to connect with others like them. Wouldn't it be great to see spaces like this in many communities?