Spending Time Online May Help Teens, Study Says

Artwork: Chip Taylor
Hey, parents -- take it easy on your teens. It turns out all those hours they're spending on social networks might not be so bad after all.

A study (PDF) released by the MacArthur Foundation Thursday suggests Internet use by teenagers could actually be helping their development in ways past generations don't always understand.

"We found that spending time online is essential for young people to pick up the social and technical skills they need to be competent citizens in the digital age," says Mizuko Ito, the study's lead author.

Information Exchange

Think of it as the information generation's equivalent to what a Friday night social was 25 years ago. By interacting in a variety of different scenarios online, teens are learning what to do (and what not to do) in the same situations they'll face as adults, both professionally and personally.

Not surprisingly, by the way, the researchers found many adults tend to miscategorize online activity as being strictly recreational -- viewing it as an "unproductive distraction" rather than a valuable activity. The authors call that a "generational gap in thinking."

Different Dynamics

Aside from learning basic social and technical skills required in modern society, the researchers say teens are also gaining deeper understandings of the "new kinds of dynamics" of the online social world -- notably that is "permanent, public, involves managing elaborate networks of friends and acquaintances, and is always on."

(We assume, then, that the rash of teens making headlines for publishing nude photos of themselves must be "learning" a lot in this regard.)

The implications, though, stretch even further. Young people, the authors say, are more apt to accept new knowledge from other teens than from adults -- such as, you know, their teachers. That notion could lead to a substantial change in educational strategies.

“This study creates a baseline for our understanding of how young people are participating with digital media and what that means for their learning,” says Connie Yowell, director of education of the MacArthur Foundation. “It concludes that learning today is becoming increasingly peer-based and networked, and this is important to consider as we begin to reimagine education in the 21st century.”

Romancing the Screen

The online interactions may have a romantic benefit, too. The study discusses the habits of a teenage couple who stays in touch electronically all day -- instant messaging each other in the morning, chatting on their cell phones on the way to school, and texting during class.

"Many contemporary teens maintain multiple and constant lines of communication with their intimates over mobile phones, IM services, and social network sites, sharing a virtual space that is accessible with specific friends or romantic partners," the study says.

Aww...how sweet. You can let your significant other stay on top of your every move, every moment of the day, before you're even old enough to vote. And hey, you can also court someone without ever having to get the guts to approach them. Take that, fear of rejection!

Well, this has all been quite enlightening. I'm off to spend the rest of the day learning valuable socialization skills that will benefit my personal and professional life. Better late than never, right?

Please let my bosses know I may miss the rest of my deadlines.

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