Teen Fads and Parental Angst

Ah, the ephemeral nature of teen fads. In a few years’ time we’ve witnessed a complete lifecycle of teen enthusiasm, in this case for social networking sites: The word spreads virally, some bad things happen, the media gets into the act, parents react with fear, and boom, you have the Great MySpace Brouhaha of 2006.

“Web of Risks” and “MySpace, A Dangerous Place” are just two of the many negative headlines from the past year. Reports of predators targeting young girls online, of high school kids advertising parties that quickly spiral out of control, of college students being expelled for posting compromising photos of themselves, have contributed to growing alarm among adults.

But in the process, some who’ve studied the phenomenon say we’ve lost sight of the benefits that can be had from the demonized social networking sites. As long as parents talk to their kids about the importance of keeping private information private, and monitor their screen time, these sites may help develop creativity and even reading skills, these researchers say.

MySpace Has Redeeming Qualities?

Yes, say educators and researchers who have quickly moved into the fray. With the public’s attitude slowly relaxing, many experts now say social networking sites help develop a child’s sense of self and provide avenues for creative self-expression.

Although news reports have noted anecdotal evidence that some of the earliest adopters of MySpace, Facebook, Friendster and Xanga appear to be showing signs of social networking fatigue, new waves of youth are continually supplementing the ranks. “MySpace is still frequently used and its usage is growing exponentially,” says Sameer Hinduja, assistant professor in the Department of Criminology and Criminal Justice at Florida Atlantic University and co-author with Justin W. Patchin of a study on adolescent usage of MySpace.

The good …

Tweens and teens, typically sensitive to peer judgments, often use MySpace to experiment with their self-image by creating and constantly updating their profiles. “Young people create virtual representations of themselves and hang out with their friends’ virtual representations,” says Hinduja. “They’re able to share with each other through this functionality despite being in different locations.”

Larry Magid, co-author with Anne Collier of the recently published 2007 book MySpace Unraveled: A Parent’s Guide to Teen Social Networking, and co-director with Collier of BlogSafety.com, believes that the experimentation kids do online is healthy. “They might explore music outside of their comfort level. Or they may be creative and expressive, in a way that doesn’t reveal personal information, by saying something that isn’t popular.”

Creating a profile page requires thought and creativity. “Kids learn a little bit about Web development, how to link and upload files, and about fonts and layout,” says Hinduja. “They construct their thoughts and feelings in a written form on blogs and in their comments. They post poems, stories and journal entries, and this develops their critical thinking and self-reflection.”

But what about the text-messaging shorthand that drives some adults crazy? “I don’t see the shorthand being used across most pages,” says Hinduja.

Donna Alvermann, distinguished research professor of language and literacy education at the University of Georgia, and a specialist on Web literacy and adolescence, believes many youth are more motivated to read when they’re on the Internet. “I’m investigating students who are not good readers in school – and not very interested in school – but who can do all this stuff on the Internet and who look very competent outside of school.” Alvermann has found that the motivation and engagement provided by the Internet can be the key to an otherwise poor student’s development as a reader.

“We usually go on the Web when there’s something we want to know. That’s not always present for school assignments,” says Alvermann. “Kids are reading and researching what they’re interested in when they’re on the Internet outside of school time. Kids can get at information equally as important as their school assignments. Quite frankly, sometimes it’s more exciting what they can do and how they can grow on their own.”

Kids should still use books to back up what they find on the Web, she says. “There’s lots of visual information on the Internet, but books will never go away. There will always be books propped up against the computer.”

Learning to read images and glitzy visuals on the Internet is part of learning to read Web sites critically. “This is actually a high-level skill,” says Alvermann, “For example, a kid who is researching Martin Luther King might stumble across a Ku Klux Klan site. This kid needs to learn that although the site is interesting visually, much of the information might not be trustworthy.”

The bad …

Just as some experts extol the virtues of social networking sites and online communities, others aren’t having any of it. Bill Joy, cofounder of Sun Microsystems, disputed this idea in a recent issue of The Atlantic Monthly: “If I was competing with the United States, I would love to have the students I was competing with spending their time on this kind of crap,” he says. “[P]eople are fooling themselves that they’re being creative in these spaces.”

No matter how you assess the value of online creativity, the privacy issue is still the paramount concern for most parents. During this past summer, Hinduja and Patchin set out to study just how dangerous MySpace is.

“The purpose of our research was to find out if kids really were posting personal information, and we found out that they weren’t that much. Although only a very small percentage of teen users did post phone numbers, that’s still too many because it opens them up to victimization. We definitely want to educate teens about this danger. But the danger was blown out of proportion by the media,” says Hinduja.

Magid, co-author of MySpace Unraveled, commends MySpace for listening to the concerns of parents. “I think the company is serious about safety. They’ve made it possible for anybody of any age to have a private profile. But their issue is that if they come down too hard on security, the kids will lose interest. MySpace has to keep it edgy to keep their customers happy.”

Could it be that parents today are overly risk averse? Magid thinks so. “For better or worse, we’re raising a generation of bubble-wrapped kids,” says Magid. “Risk is part of the learning process. You want to manage the risk so that your kids don’t do something that they’ll regret, but it’s a tight-rope walk. When I traveled when I was younger I didn’t have a cell phone, but now I’m nervous when I lose track of my grown son for two days.”

Monitoring a child’s online activities and yet giving her enough space to develop independence and good judgment is one of the more difficult balancing acts of parenting. Another is knowing when to restrict certain social influences, and many parents would consider MySpace to be a minefield of negative influences. From the casual usage of “ho” and “pimp” to sexually suggestive photos to references to drinking, drugs and casual sex, many parents are not thrilled with the culture on much of MySpace.

MySpace does have staff policing the site for violations of their rules. A MySpace representative stated in an email that, “MySpace dedicates a third of our workforce to monitoring our site on a 24-hour, seven-day-a-week basis. MySpace has developed a series of initiatives designed to protect our users against inappropriate conduct and content, including reviewing every image hosted by our site – more than 2 million every day – using our dedicated customer care team as well as algorithms and search engines to identify and purge inappropriate material.”

Although MySpace takes these precautions, it’s still a wide-open public forum and, ultimately, it’s up to the MySpace community to enforce the rules. MySpace users can report any images that they feel are inappropriate by clicking on “Report This Image” under profile images.

… And the ugly

The conflict between youth and adults over social networking has its source in two characteristics. Adults are uncomfortable with a medium that they didn’t grow up with. And youth are in denial that their blogs, postings and photos are public.

“Kids are in denial because the name is MySpace,” says Magid. “There is a sense of intimacy for them. For example, if two people are dating and they’re in a restaurant and holding hands, they could be oblivious to other people being around them. There is a sense of anonymity.

“Or they could be showing off and there is a sense of narcissism. It’s Andy Warhol’s 15 minutes of fame. There are people who have huge followings for their blogs. They’ve become very famous.”

Web 2.0 and Social Networking 101

For those who have been hiding under a rock since 2003, social networking sites are now the hottest thing on the Internet. This occurred, in part, due to Web 2.0 technology. Web 2.0, a phrase referring to a “second” generation of Internet sites, includes social networking sites and all sites that are collaborative and created by shared information.

Using Web 2.0 technology, a user can create online diaries (blogs) and upload photographs, video, music and lectures. Relatively nontechnical people, for example, can capture images on cell phone cameras and post them online, while new user-friendly technologies are constantly popping up.

Social networking sites were bred out of the conjunction of blogs and purely social sites, such as the early incarnation of Friendster.com. MySpace, which launched in January of 2004, created a heady brew of communication technology, easy-to-create profiles and community, and forever changed the social networking landscape.

“MySpace is extremely user-friendly,” says Sameer Hinduja, assistant professor in the Department of Criminology and Criminal Justice at Florida Atlantic University and co-author with Justin W. Patchin of a study on adolescent usage of MySpace. “You can add pictures and IM and email friends. You can add graphics and background and streaming music. Other sites have limitations compared to MySpace.”

What’s Next?

While it’s impossible to predict the future, it’s always fun to speculate. Larry Magid, in addition to being the co-author of MySpace Unraveled, is a technology commentator for CBS News and in an excellent position to make an informed prediction.

“We think there is going to be a large migration to mobile,” he says. “We already see this in texting. There’s a new service, Loopt.com, that takes advantage of GPS, and the kids can keep track of where their friends are. This brings up a whole host of new safety issues. Although it’s a permission-based system, there are ways to trick kids into giving permission to become a friend. But beyond that, we know that communication and interactivity is here to stay. What we don’t know for sure is what it’s going to look like.”

Additional Resources

MySpace Unraveled: A Parent’s Guide to Teen Social Networking by Larry Magid and Anne Collier, Peachpit Press, 2007. A particularly good aspect of the book is the “Key Parenting Point” feature.

Blogs, Wikis, Podcasts, and Other Powerful Web Tools for the Classroom by Will Richardson, Corwin Press, 2006.

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