Coming of age on the Internet

Mar 03, 2009

In the mid-90s, the Internet seemed like a dark place. 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? Social scientists are revisiting those early concerns, and some are coming to believe that the psychological benefits may now outweigh the detrimental effects. In a new report in Current Directions in Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science, psychologists Patti Valkenburg and Jochen Peter of the University of Amsterdam 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 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.

The psychologists have 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. However, 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.

Source: Association for Psychological Science

Explore further: Depression increasing across the country

add to favorites email to friend print save as pdf

Related Stories

Engineering an affordable exoskeleton

Jun 12, 2014

When soccer's World Cup—the most-watched sports event on Earth—kicks off June 12, Berkeley professor Homayoon Kazerooni and his research assistants won't be watching the players. They'll be staring at ...

I'd love to smash the Ritz...

Sep 29, 2011

The riots weren’t funny. Let’s get that straight right from the start. But for those who tuned in on YouTube, they did have some comic moments. In Tottenham, on the opening night, a group of hoodies ...

Just like teens, parents get personal on Facebook

Jul 11, 2011

They may not dress like Justin Bieber or Selena Gomez, but parents are a whole lot like their teenagers when it comes to their behaviour on Facebook. That's the finding of a new study by University of Guelph researchers.

Recommended for you

Boys will be boys? Yes, neuroscience now shows

10 hours ago

If you've ever tried to warn teenagers of the consequences of risky behavior - only to have them sigh and roll their eyes - don't blame them. Blame their brain anatomy.

Depression increasing across the country

14 hours ago

A study by San Diego State University psychology professor Jean M. Twenge shows Americans are more depressed now than they have been in decades.

How to predict who will suffer the most from stress

16 hours ago

More than 23 per cent of Canadians report being stressed or very stressed on most days. While chronic stress increases the risk of poor mental and physical health, not everyone is affected the same way. Some cope well, but ...

User comments : 0