Online games, social-networking Web sites, and chat rooms are empowering and motivating for teens and help with their development, according to a study released Thursday by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation at the American Anthropological Association's annual meeting. The study covered three years and 5,000 hours of observing teens online.
The report is part of a $50 million initiative to investigate how digital media affect the way teenagers learn and socialize. Twenty-eight researchers conducted the study.
"When adults look at teens today, they think what they are doing is different and seem to be wasting a lot of time online hanging out with their friends or playing video games, and these are activities that can seem quite foreign," said Mizuko Ito, the report's lead author and a researcher at the University of California Irvine. "But when we look closely at what kids are doing, it's not much different than what their parents did. They are hanging out with their friends, finding romantic partners, and trying to identify their status and identity."
Ito added that today's teens are being raised with technologies that allow them to pursue self-directed learning on their own terms, on their own time, and without the restrictions of a classroom setting. This gives the teens a feeling of freedom and autonomy.
"This is very different from how kids learn in school when they are handed a set body of knowledge they are asked to master and the expertise really resides in the teachers," Ito said.
"Our feeling after spending time with kids was that a lot of the worries about predators are overblown given what kids are really doing online," Ito said in a phone interview. "When kids are engaged in friendship-driven (interactions online), they are communicating with kids they already know. They actually think it is pretty creepy if there are adults on that page and their ideas are not that far off from their parents."
Asked about teens spending too much time online, Ito said that as with anything, it is a matter of balance. "Look, let's look carefully at what kids are getting from the participation and look at ways to guide them through the participation so it is more productive," she said.
There were two significantly different categories in which the teens were motivated to engage online. They were either driven by interest or friendship, according to the 58-page report.
Four specific findings stood out from the rest of the research.
One major finding is that there is a generation gap in how parents and teens view the teen's online activities. Adults see the activities as a distraction and are left in the dark about what their teens are doing online. Teens, on the other hand, understand the value of the Internet and are motivated to participate.
Another finding shows that teens are not taking full advantage of the Internet. They are using the social networks to chat and post photos and make friends, which are important to their development, but they are not tapping into other existing opportunities and "geeking out" by learning about astronomy, foreign languages, and other subjects only a few clicks away.
Teens are also fine-tuning their social skills online by learning the basic social and technical skills needed to interact in today's digital world.
Peer pressure also takes on a new role online. Teens are reporting that they are more motivated by their peers online with public spaces that allow the teens to interact and provide feedback to one another.
While teens are using the Internet for both social and intellectual development, they are also facing significant challenges on how to manage their relationships online, according to the study.
Researchers say online media, messages and profiles posted by teens on social-networking sites such as MySpace and Facebook are often passed around through the Internet and are difficult to take back once they are posted. Controversial photos have been posted online for a specific audience, only to then filter through the Internet.
"Most parents knew very little about what their kids did online, and struggled to give real guidance and help," said Ito. In some cases, however, the researchers found that parents and their children came together around gaming or shared digital-media projects, where both kids and adults brought expertise to the table.