Earlier today, I had the unusual experience of giving a speech to a group of academics at the Illinois Mathematics and Science Academy, in Aurora, Ill. The unusual part was that I talked and interacted with them via AIM instant messaging on video. They could see and hear me talking from my home office in San Francisco, and I could hear their reactions and questions, and see the people questioning me. I even heard an announcement on the school loudspeakers about pumpkin projects!

The subject of the talk was teen use of social media such as online social networks, blogs, instant messaging, text messaging. The questions put to me were: How prevalent is the usage? Is this dangerous and isolating? How should we guide kids in this tech-overload atmosphere? The following are my notes from that talk, including links to supporting material at the end. Keep in mind that much of this is taken verbatim from the sources cited, and it is not a word-for-word speech. I don’t usually share this type of thing on my blog, but thought it was a subject that would interest my readers here.

Teens and Social Media

History: Social networking online has been around since the late ’90s and the rise of Friendster. Blogs have been around since the late ’90s and before that there were personal home pages and online diaries. Instant messaging has been around since mid-‘90s. Email and the Internet have roots in the ARPANET from the ’60s and ’70s. None of this is really new.

So what’s new and why is this such a hot topic? There have been widespread adoption of broadband connections at home, school and work. The technology is easier to use. Usage started with academics, business, then moved to hobbyists and then the general public and now teens.

One important recognition of the explosion of social media use among teens and children is that the MacArthur Foundation just made a huge announcement that it would commit $50 million over five years to “fund research and innovative projects focused on understanding the impact of digital media on our youth and how they learn.”

According to MacArthur President Jonathan Fanton:

“This is the first generation to grow up digital — coming of age in a world where computers, the internet, videogames, and cell phones are common, and where expressing themselves through these tools is the norm. Given how present these technologies are in their lives, do young people act, think and learn differently today? And what are the implications for education and for society? MacArthur will encourage this discussion, fund research, support innovation, and engage those who can make judgments about these difficult but critical questions.”

The foundation says that “83% of young people between the ages of 8 and 18 play videogames regularly; nearly 75% use instant messaging. On a typical day, more than half of U.S. teenagers use a computer and more than 40 percent play a videogame. Young people are using websites like MySpace and Facebook, and sharing photos, videos, music, ideas, and opinions online, connecting with a large group of peers in new and sometimes unexpected ways.”

Pew Internet Research finds:

> “Teens and Generation Y (age 18-28) are significantly more likely than older users to send and receive instant messages, play online games, create blogs, download music, and search for school information.”

> “An always-on, high-speed connection at home enables some of these activities for young internet users, but broadband access is not the whole story. Internet users in their 30s are about as likely as users in their 20s to have broadband at home and yet do not match the younger users in their enthusiasm for games and IM.”

Pew Research on ‘The Ties that Bind’ — explains the positive results of the Net:

> “The Internet’s capacity to help maintain and cultivate social networks has real payoffs. Pew found that internet use provides online Americans a path to resources, such as access to people who may have the right information to help deal with a health or medical issue or to confront a financial issue.”

> “Sometimes this assistance comes from a close friend or family member. Sometimes this assistance comes from a person more socially distant, but made close by email in a time of need. The result is that people not only socialize online, but they also incorporate the internet into seeking information, exchanging advice, and making decisions.”

Does online use of social networks mean people are less social? Pew research finds that:

> “Internet users have somewhat larger social networks than non-users. The median size of an American’s network of core and significant ties is 35. For internet users, the median network size is 37; for non-users it is 30.”

> “Whatever the cause, it is clear that email is adding on to other communication media. This means that the current generation of email users is communicating much more often than recent generations and possibly more often than any previous generation since people huddled in caves with only conversation to pass the nights away. Couple this high rate of communication with the sizable networks online, and Pew has evidence that while Americans may be bowling alone — as Robert Putnam warned — they are networking together.”

Nielsen//NetRatings on children using the Net [PDF file]:

> “In September 2003, kids between the ages of 2 and 11 spent an average of six hours and 39 minutes online. That has increased three years later by 41 percent to nearly 9 hours and 24 minutes per month. Teens more than double that time. In 2003, teenagers spent over 21 hours online per month. In 2006, they spend 26 hours per month.”

Ken Cassar of Nielsen:
“The Internet is as much a part of children’s lives as TV, school and books. It provides entertainment, social interaction and educational opportunities. We can expect the time kids spend online to increase along with expanded offerings on the Web and the growing network of their friends and family who use the Web frequently.”

eMarketer on Teens & Tweens:

> “Social studies: As tweens become teens, socializing online becomes more important than activities such as game playing. There are sharp increases in the use of instant messaging, text messaging, blogging, social networking and more.”

> “Multi-tasking: Between the ages of 8 and 14, kids learn how to mediate their attention among a variety of inputs, including their mobile phones, the TV, the Internet and music. The multi-tasking abilities of teens are just starting to bloom in the tween years. The more tweens multi-task the less attention they can devote to any one activity.”

Multitasking is important in today’s hectic world, but ADD isn’t good so concentrating on one activity is a good skill to stress as well.

What about the popularity of MySpace?

i-76418b225f2128eb8c66cd41a72317c7-danah boyd.JPG

According to danah boyd (pictured here), expert on social networking, researcher at Yahoo and UC Berkeley:

> [I’m paraphrasing here:] Kids and teenagers have very little freedom in the real world. It’s not like back in the day. They used to bike places on their own — now it’s all controlled and sanitized.

> The online world is the only place where they have freedom of expression, and can really be on their own and be themselves.

boyd told me:
“Youth and alienated populations are inclined to spend more time going through identity development processes because they are trying to ‘figure out who they are.’ Blogs and [MySpace] profiles are particularly supportive of this. Of course, blogs require having something to say while profiles let you write yourself into being via collage.

“People do grow out of ongoing identity production, but not for quite some time…MySpace lets these groups run wild and these are the two populations who dominate MySpace – youth (14-24) and 20/30-somethings who participate actively in cultural development (from performance artists to clubgoers to sex divas to wannabee celebrities). These sites are ideal for these populations, even if they make no sense to parents and professionals.”

Is MySpace dangerous?

Stories about predators on MySpace abound, but they’re no different than the web in general or the world in general. Fear is rampant in our society, so beware of media panics around dangers online. Journalists and mass media are responsible for overreacting to this and exaggerating the dangers.

danah boyd:
“There are only a small number of cases where something bad has actually happened. Remember: Most of what you are hearing in the press turns out to not be associated with MySpace at all. Just because teens do something stupid/bad and they have a MySpace account does not mean that they did it because of MySpace. Teens are more likely to be abducted at school than on MySpace. Teens are more likely to die in their parents’ cars than be killed because of MySpace.”

Later, on her blog, Boyd pointed out that the authorities had started to catch predators by posing online, so MySpace has become more dangerous for predators than for teens!

Benefits of Online Time with Social Media

Richard Leyland writes in Silicon.com:

“Today’s connected teens are highly skilled at multitasking and making complex, immediate connections. They can quickly access, create, swap and manipulate information on many levels. At the one-to-one level, they use email, IM and phones. At the one-to-many level, they use blogs and web pages. At the collaborative level, they use message boards and wikis.

“They also make smart, a la carte use of technology. Neither afraid of nor infatuated by the tools, they simply select those which are useful to the task in hand. It’s clear that today’s teens will be highly suited to work in the knowledge economy, where applying knowledge, learning and access to information are key to success.”

Other good sides to the technology:

> Easier to keep in touch with larger group of friends, spread out by geography.

> Kids are learning important skills such as typing and writing by doing IM, texting and blogging.

> Shy people in person might be better able to communicate in IM or email.

> More freedoms online than in real world where freedoms are curtailed for teens


> In open chat rooms or when posting to a blog, thoughts are out there for everyone in the world to see.

> Too much texting — English writing skills can be hurt by all the abbreviations.

> Ergonomic problems of too much computer, texting time.

> Students spend time on school computers texting or posting to blog, when they should be doing school work.

> Students can cheat on tests by texting each other or photographing tests and sharing them.

> Reliance on texting or email rather than face-to-face or phone conversations.

> Anonymous “flaming” of other people, saying things online you’d never say to someone’s face.

Other Anonymity issues:

Plus side: Let’s someone role play or express themselves in a less inhibited way — getting over shyness.

Down side: Less inhibited conversation, people think they’re in fantasy world but aren’t!

No matter how anonymous you think you are, you CAN be tracked down and ID’ed!

> Growing addiction to the technology and not being able to turn it off. Isolation from face-to-face contact despite contact electronically.

Weirdest danger:
> Text messaging while in the car!

From story in San Jose Mercury News:

“In one case, a Colorado teen served nine days in jail after he struck and killed a bicyclist with his car while texting in November 2005. In another, a 26-year-old Tennessee man flipped his pickup truck and died while attempting to send a text message in March 2005.”

Finding Balance: Everything in Moderation

Doctor Lucy Troop, a psychology professor at Colorado State University:

“I think its adults that don’t adjust to tech-savvy kids. I think a balance is good, as a parent you have to balance how much access you give your kids to these things, but denying them totally and saying it’s bad is silly. It’s not, it’s a good thing.”

> Educate students on the right times to use technology to communicate vs. face to face talks for important subjects.

> Limit cell phone usage and texting in classrooms. Limit IM and blog posting time on school computers.

> Explain dangers of putting personal info on MySpace profiles or on blogs. That information could come back to haunt them later in life. It’s a global audience!

> Just like parents cringe at discussing the birds & bees, they are uncomfortable discussing technology issues but MUST!

Keep Lines of Communication Open

One father of two 14-year old twins (boy/girl) and one 16-year-old boy — in a technology-heavy household, with two parents working in Silicon Valley, told me his story:

This is the world we live in now — and the online world is the equivalent of the streets of the neighborhood so they’d better learn ‘em early. It’s also my take that parents need to be savvy and talk to their kids about the risks (just like drugs) but that bad things are gonna happen and the most important focus is safety. The drug analogy is you’re going to get exposed to drugs — and the majority of teens will try them — but the emphasis should be on honesty, i.e. acknowledging the reality rather than denying it and also on creating safety around that exposure.

And lastly — the safe, no recriminations call to the parents at the moment of need — i.e. if you get drunk/drugged up or do something in a chat room that lands you in trouble — your parents will be there to support you — first and foremost.

The younger son is the only one that we had to take specific action with — mainly because he was not good at regulating himself — I installed a piece of software that limited computer time, game time etc and simply banned him from using email and IM for a period of time until he learned to self-regulate.

The older son lives for World of Warcraft [an online game] — but he is also well aware of the rest of his responsibilities academically and within the home — doesn’t mean to say we don’t argue about it — we do — but as far as safe practices go — he already gets that.

For the younger son, I occasionally look at his browsing history — and for a while required and had access to his email — but the reality is that they pretty quickly work out that they can have multiple email accounts so the best way is to work on the principles rather than trying to interpose between reality (the online world) and the child’s curiosity — trying to use arcane monitoring methods is clumsy and risks losing respect in the child’s eye – far better to acknowledge what is — take them down to the Tenderloin [a bad neighborhood in San Francisco] show them what’s there and teach them to be street savvy.

Bottom line: Teens are using new media, IM, texting, games — this is their culture and it’s not going away (until the next big thing…), so the best thing to do is find a balance, set good fair guidelines and rules around usage, and keep the lines of communication open!

Resources for More Reading:

Building the Field of Digital Media and Learning [MacArthur Foundation]

Digital Media and Learning site [MacArthur Foundation]

Pew Research on The Ties that Bind [PDF file]

Teens and Tweens: Do You Know the Difference? [eMarketer]

Friendster lost steam. Is MySpace just a fad? [danah boyd essay]

Tips on Teen Use of the Internet

Unwired: Prepare for the next generation [Silicon.com]

The Wired Generation [The Vail Trail]

Cell phones, text messages are changing the way people relate
[Gainesville Times]

Danger: Drivers who type on their Treo or Blackberry [San Jose Mercury News]

[Photo credit of danah boyd: Paula le Dieu]


What do you think about teen use of social media? Do you believe in balance and moderation? If you’re a parent of a teen, how do you deal with these issues? If you are a teen, do you feel like this is much ado about nothing? Share your thoughts and stories in the comments below.