- The Washington Times - Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Texting, blogs, Facebook, gaming and instant messages might seem, to some, to be just more reasons to stare at a computer screen.

Thinking like that is so 2008, any middle schooler will tell you. Now a study that looked at the online habits of 800 teenagers backs them up.

Researchers in the study, titled the Digital Youth Project and conducted primarily at the University of Southern California and the University of California at Berkeley, found that in our increasingly technological world, the constant communication that social networking provides is encouraging useful skills. The study looked at more than 5,000 hours of online observation and found that the digital world is creating new opportunities for young people to grapple with social norms, explore interests, develop technical skills and work on new forms of self-expression.

“There are myths about kids spending time online — that it is dangerous or making them lazy,” says Mizuko Ito, lead author of the study, which will be the basis of a forthcoming book, “Hanging Out, Messing Around, Geeking Out: Living and Learning With New Media.” “But we found that spending time online is essential for young people to pick up the social and technical skills they need to be competent citizens in the digital age.”

Co-author Lisa Tripp, now an assistant professor at Florida State University, says technology, including YouTube, iPods and podcasting, creates avenues for extending one’s circle of friends, boosts self-directed learning and fosters independence.

“Certain technical skills in the coming years are not going to be just about consuming media,” she says. “It is also going to be about producing media. It is not just about writing a blog, but also how to leave comments that say something. Learning to communicate like this is contributing to the general circulation of culture.”

That means anything from a video clip to a profile page is going to reflect the self-expression skills one has, so teens might as well practice what will say who they are.

Social networking also contributes greatly to teens’ extended friendships and interests, Ms. Tripp says. While the majority of teens use sites such as MySpace and Facebook to “hang out” with people they already know in real life, a smaller portion uses them to find like-minded people. Before social networking, the one kid in school who was, say, a fan of Godzilla or progressive politics might find himself isolated. These days, that youngster has peers everywhere.

“This kind of communication has let teens expand their social circle by common interests,” Ms. Tripp says. “They can publicize and distribute their work to online audiences and become sort of a microexpert in that area.” The study found that young people’s learning with digital media often is more self-directed, with a freedom and autonomy that is less apparent than in a classroom. The researchers said youths usually respect one another’s authority online, and they often are more motivated to learn from one another than from adults.

Parents, however, still have an important role to play when it comes to tweens, teens and social networking, the researchers say. They need to accept that technology is a necessary and important part of the culture for young people and, other experts say, be aware of with whom the teens are communicating.

Monica Vila, founder of theonlinemom.com, an online resource for digital-age parenting, says parents need to set parameters just as they would “at any other playground.” “This kind of study puts a lot of facts behind the value of social networking,” Ms. Vila says.

It is up to parents to monitor what is being expressed, she says. She recommends that parents “have a presence” in their child’s online social network. That doesn’t necessarily mean “friending,” communicating and commenting, but it does mean having a password or knowing who your child’s online friends are. One Fairfax County mother of a middle schooler, who asked that her name not be used to protect her daughter’s privacy, says she was skeptical at first when her daughter wanted a Facebook page.

“I was hesitant for all the reasons we hear about, such as how it could bring in unwelcome visitors,” the woman says, “but eventually I realized that this is the main medium for kids keeping in touch. It has gone from e-mail to IM to texting to Facebook in such a quick progression. [Social networking] is like the modern-day equivalent of the lunch table. If you are not on Facebook, then you are not in the loop.”

The woman says she stays in the loop because she knows her daughter’s password, and her daughter knows her mom can access her page whenever she wants — and can see who is there and what they are posting.

A few rules: no putting your exact whereabouts on your status update, and be aware of who is tagging you in a photo because if that photo contains unflattering behavior, it could come back to haunt you. Also, the mom has a Facebook page of her own, although she is not yet among her daughter’s 100-plus friends.

“I have become accepting that there are more positives than negatives from social networking,” the woman says, noting that she is pleased to see the connection of her daughter’s network through various circles such as school and sports. “It is allowing a lot of dialogue among people who may not otherwise have a chance for a lot of dialogue.” Those are all good rules and observations, Ms. Vila says.

“I like to catch parents before this whole process starts,” she says. “That way you can set the ground rules early and [not] be trying to catch up. If your kids know that you have a presence in their online community, you are acting like a chaperone. If they won’t friend you, you should at least have their password.

“It is not that kids are untrustworthy,” Ms. Vila says. “It is that they often lack processing skills. Parents need to explain that images may be damaging. They may not be able to think past the next day, let alone what will happen when they are looking for a job six years later.” Studies such as the Digital Youth Project and the report “Enhancing Child Safety and Online Technologies,” issued recently by Harvard University’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society, show that social networking has earned a place in American culture from which there is no turning back, Ms. Vila says.

“A few years ago, parents were saying, ‘I don’t want any of that stuff coming into my house,’ even about video games,” she says. “Then they realized, ‘I have no choice, it is all around me.’ Now studies are saying technology is going to encourage skills for jobs we didn’t know existed. At the very least, social networking is encouraging technology skills, and that is going to be essential to the digital economy.” To read the full report from the Digital Youth Project, visit https://digitalyouth.ischool.berkeley.edu/report.

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