Coming of Age on the Internet

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

By Wray Herbert

Like many people of my generation, I was a latecomer to the Internet. In fact, I learned about cyberspace mostly from my kids, who embraced this emerging technology from earliest childhood. As a parent, I paid close attention to the sordid tales of Internet sleaziness, and I was also mindful of the more subtle psychological perils: the risk of social isolation and aberrant teenage obsession. The Internet seemed like a dark place.

This was in the mid-90s, and I was far from alone in my worries. Indeed, scientific studies from that time were documenting some real risks for teenagers, including fewer close friendships and more tenuous connections with family. It appeared that teens were sacrificing real relationships for superficial cyber-relationships with total strangers.

Is this still true? Has the Internet fulfilled the fearful vision of the early days? Social scientists are revisiting those early concerns, and some are coming to believe that the psychological benefits may now outweigh the detrimental effects. Psychologists Patti Valkenburg and Jochen Peter of the University of Amsterdam are among the newly optimistic. They took a look at a decade of research on these questions, and they believe two important historical changes have altered the psychological landscape.

First, the sheer number of teenagers now using the Internet has transformed the technology into a true social networking tool. Even in the late 90s, only about one in ten adolescents were online, which meant that kids actually had to choose between online relationships and real relationships. There was very little overlap, so it was very difficult to maintain flesh-and-blood relations while exploring cyberspace. Today, Valkenburg and Peter say, the vast majority of teenagers in Western countries have access to the Internet, and most appear to use the technology to nurture their existing relationships rather than to forge new ones.

Second, the newer communication tools also encourage building on existing relationships rather than isolating. In the 90s, the few teens who did spend time on the Internet tended to hang out with strangers in public chat rooms and so-called MUDS, multi-user dungeons. The appearance of instant messaging and social networks like Facebook has changed all that, according to the psychologists. Today, more than eight in ten teenagers use IM to connect with the same friends they see at school and work.

Recent studies document the positive effects of these technological changes. But what exactly is going on in the minds of the teenagers to produce this greater sense of well-being? Valkenburg and Peter have an idea about this. They believe that the 21st century Internet encourages honest talking about very personal issues—feelings, worries, vulnerabilities—that are difficult for many self-conscious teens to talk about. When they communicate through the Internet, they have fewer sounds and sights and social cues to distract them, so they become less concerned with how others perceive them. This in turn reduces inhibition, leading to unusually intimate talk. This emotionally liberating frankness is healthy and tonic.

The psychologists have shown these positive effects in their studies, which they describe in the February issue of Current Directions in Psychological Science. They’ve also shown that “hyperpersonal” Internet talk leads to higher quality friendships, and that these quality friendships buffer teenagers against stress and lead to greater happiness. By contrast, solitary “surfing” of the Internet has no positive effects on connectedness or well-being, and hanging around public chat rooms—though much rarer—still appears psychologically risky.

Facebook, the social networking tool invented for college kids five years ago, is now being taken over by those kids’ parents. That means it’s just a matter of time before the younger generation abandons this technology and move on to the next best thing. We’ll see what that is. Perhaps the connectedness and openness are now permanent features of a technology that has come of age.

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posted by Wray Herbert @ 1:15 PM