New study shows social networking is good for youngsters

November 20, 2008

A lot has been made of the dangers of the Internet for young people. Whether it’s the risk of sexual predators, or the risk that a virtual existence can somehow replace a child’s thirst for a real life, the Web has often been described as a bad influence on the youth of today. So it’s nice to finally see some research that suggests the opposite is true.

The Internet has been an absolutely revolutionary invention, giving people new ways of working, new ways of communicating, and of being entertained. The effect it has had on adults has been seen to be wholly good, except of course those people who become addicted to World of Warcraft, Second Life, and such. But children are another matter altogether.

Parents are rightly worried about the influence of the Internet on their kids lives, and most offer guidance, advice, and often limits on Web usage. But maybe they should relax those rules, as a new study by the MacArthur Foundation called ‘Living and Learning With New Media’ suggests the Internet can be a force for good for youngsters.

The study was conducted between 2005 and 2008 with over 800 young people and their parents interviewed in that time. The teenagers were also observed online for over 5,000 hours while they used social networks such as Facebook and MySpace. Mizuko Ito, lead researcher on the study, told The New York Times:

It may look as though kids are wasting a lot of time hanging out with new media, whether it’s on MySpace or sending instant messages. But their participation is giving them the technological skills and literacy they need to succeed in the contemporary world. They’re learning how to get along with others, how to manage a public identity, how to create a home page.

Those concerns about predators and stranger danger have been overblown. There’s been some confusion about what kids are actually doing online. Mostly, they’re socializing with their friends, people they’ve met at school or camp or sports.

The study found that most teenagers use a variety of methods to keep in touch with their friends on virtually a 24 hour basis, including social networks, instant messaging services and their cellphones. Casual friendships can also often lead to romance through these forms of communication.

The most interesting point of the study explored how while teenagers may start by exploring social networks and sites such as YouTube, eventually, the Web leads them to explore and find information out about niches they are interested in. If a kid delves deeply in to one subject matter they are said to have been “geeking out”.

Parents will always have concerns over what their teenage son or daughter is doing online, and rightly so. But this study does at least show that the Web isn’t a complete waste of time and in fact could help kids in their quest to grow and mature.

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