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Kids These Days

Constant Contact

OMG! What R new technologies doing 2 t33ns?

Last month I joined Facebook. I now have three friends. My son, age 16, has 760 friends. My friends include my son and one of his friends. And then there is a mysterious woman. Like many other older adults, I wonder about the effects of growing up in this age of new communications technologies.

Take the collective experience of constant “messaging” (instant messaging, text messaging, Facebook messaging, and so on). How is it changing our young people? And what does it mean that more than half of all teenagers maintain a profile on a social networking site? One would assume that peer relations have been transformed in some way. But how? Are friendships becoming stronger because kids are continually interacting? Or more shallow because those interactions are often so superficial? Fortunately, such questions have piqued the interest of social scientists, and while research is still in its preliminary stages, the news is pretty good.

Studies from Indiana University indicate that adolescents are still relying on face-to-face contact to develop their true friendships. And one Dutch study finds that online communication with true friends adds to adolescents’ sense of well-being. Reassuringly, too, the Indiana University studies show that the new technologies are connecting teens with a wider range of acquaintances, which could be a real boon. After all, the majority of experts on adolescent development agree that learning how to relate to different kinds of people is among the major tasks the young need to take on. Moreover, a wealth of positive comments from a large and diverse group can’t help but shore up a kid’s self-esteem.

I got a sense of just how supportive electronic communities can be around my son’s most recent birthday: I counted 108 birthday greetings among the messages posted on his Facebook homepage, and the variety of personal styles was remarkable. There were masculine styles (“Hey man, happy birthday!” “Happy birthday bro”), feminine styles (“Happy birthday best friend!!!” “Happy birthday, I miss you in history”), and styles that were in a class all their own (“Gappy birthday, big man,” “Sooo, have a haggard birthday”). Skeptical adults may argue that such a diversity of styles is superficial. But the fact is that when we’re growing up, style and substance tend to be close cousins, not polar opposites. Adopting a special and recognizable style helps teenagers establish a personal identity, and a personal identity provides a framework for connecting with fellow human beings.

The Indiana University studies also look at teen loners, noting that for these kids, the new technologies have little impact. Unlike friendless adults, loners in their teens do not turn to the Internet for contact with others. They’re also much less likely than their peers to use text or instant messaging. One conclusion we can surely draw is that kids who feel isolated need much more than computers and cell phones. Stronger relationships with parents and teachers could help.

Finally, what about all the writing young people are doing in today’s electronic age? Is the extra practice making them better with words? Or is their facility with language suffering because the kind of writing that the new technologies encourage is so telegraphic? It looks like a wash. Research from the Pew Internet and American Life Project shows no evidence that digital communications are either fostering or undermining writing skills.

The one question mark is blogging, which 66 percent of girls and 50 percent of boys do. Since blogging constitutes a much longer form of writing than messaging, we might expect it to enhance adolescents’ competence. On the other hand, bloggers—who publish their work without ever having to run it by an editor—may grow undisciplined and self-indulgent. And the more they blog, the more ingrained those traits could become. As the sports maxim says, “Practice makes permanent (not perfect).”

Taken together, the findings on how new technologies are affecting adolescents suggest no cause for alarm. That said, I myself worry that I can count my Facebook friends on one hand. Maybe I’ll have better luck if I change my music preferences from Bach and Puccini to the Jonas Brothers and Hannah Montana.

Clement Chau, a doctoral student in the Eliot-Pearson Department of Child Development, provided indispensable help in the writing of this column.

W. GEORGE SCARLETT is deputy chair of the Eliot-Pearson Department of Child Development and lead author of the book Children’s Play. His latest book, Approaches to Behavior and Classroom Management, is due out in January.

  © 2008 Tufts University Tufts Publications, 80 George St., Medford, MA 02155