Cover Story

Parents planning to ground their teenagers at home for their latest antics might want to consider dropping them off at the mall instead. Being away from the computer may put quite a damper on their social life, according to new research suggesting that teens who use the Internet to communicate may have better friendships than those who don't.

Results released in April from a study by the Pew Research Center show that 89 percent of teens use the Internet at least once a week, and that 61 percent log on at least daily. And private communications, such as instant messaging (IM) and e-mail, eat up most of the time they spend online.

In fact, a 2005 Pew Center report on teens and technology shows that 75 percent of all online teens--about two-thirds of teenagers overall--use IM, and that nearly half of teens use it at least once every day.

But how is this popular mode of communication affecting the social development of children and teens? Most teens use the Internet to consolidate their existing social networks, not to make new friends, says Patti M. Valkenburg, PhD, professor of child and media research at the University of Amsterdam. And she says all this frequent online communication may help young people develop more intimate friendships by allowing kids to let go of inhibitions.

"The Internet exactly meets the needs of teens who would spend their entire day chatting with friends if they could," Valkenburg says.

But this new online candor may also lead some teens--most often those with troubled offline relationships--to make dangerous connections with strangers on the Internet, or engage in online harassment, psychologists say. And as Internet use continues to grow, teens may end up spending more time cuddling up with a glowing computer screen than flirting at the mall, says developmental psychologist Patricia Greenfield, PhD, a University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) psychology professor and co-investigator of the Children's Digital Media Center, which just completed five years of research funded by the National Science Foundation.

"As a species, we evolved for face-to-face communication," she says. "The increase in mediated communication makes us freer, but also risks making our social relations less personal and more fleeting."

Sticking close to home

Joe712: YT? WAYD?
Steve34: OTP--what's your ETA?
Joe712: 7pm
Steve34: WFM--CUL8R

This may look like a foreign language to some, but to nine out of 10 teenagers, it's merely an IM conversation confirming offline plans between two friends. Here's the conversation again, decoded:

Joe712: You there? What are you doing?
Steve34: On the phone--what's your estimated time of arrival?
Joe712: 7 p.m.
Steve34: Works for me--see you later!

Such communication makes up the bulk of teens' online talk, as most kids stick to chatting with friends from school, clubs or other offline social networks, according to a 2004 Journal of Applied Developmental Psychology study (Vol. 25, No. 6, pages 633-649). The study shows teens spent about an hour a day conversing online, often about school, friends and gossip, says study author Elisheva F. Gross, PhD, who works with Greenfield at UCLA. And a 2007 Developmental Psychology study (Vol. 43, No. 2, pages 267-277) led by Valkenburg confirms these online teen social habits. The study polled 794 10- to 16-year-olds at six elementary, middle and high schools in the Netherlands--where teens report similar online habits as youth in the United States, Valkenburg says--and found that 88 percent "often" or "almost always" communicate online with pre-existing, offline friends. The study also reports that respondents who communicated online more often felt closer to their friends, she says.

The reason for this closeness may stem from another one of the study's findings--that nearly one in three adolescents say they're better able to share intimate information about themselves online than offline, especially when it comes to interacting with the opposite sex. It seems that teens, especially those who may be socially anxious in face-to-face situations, view the Internet as a relatively low-risk venue for disclosing personal information. Since IM participants can't partake in any passive observations about their IM partners, they're forced to ask more direct questions--questions that might be considered rude in face-to-face settings, says Valkenburg. This, in turn, may stimulate closer friendships she adds.

"[Teens] say they can better talk about secrets such as being in love or things they're ashamed of on the Internet than in real-life situations," she says. That sort of "intimate self-disclosure is a main determinant of the quality of friendships."

Dangerous connections

For some teens, however, rather than serving to further offline friendships, the Internet leads to social isolation. In a 2005 Professional Psychology: Research and Practice study (Vol. 36, No. 5, pages 498-509) more than 1,000 mental health professionals from 11 professional membership associations, including APA, completed a two-phase mail survey examining the Internet-related problems most reported to them by clients. Cases were categorized in an 11group inventory of problems, including overuse, risky or inappropriate use, and sexual exploitation and abuse. Participants classified 15 percent of youth clients described in the study as engaging in isolative-avoidant use of the Internet. In essence, teens were spending so much time on the Internet that they isolated themselves from family and friends, says lead author Kimberly J. Mitchell, PhD, psychology professor at the Crimes Against Children Research Center (CCRC) at the University of New Hampshire.

"The Internet was basically their sole means of socialization," she says.

And the same liberating function that often leads to higher-quality offline friendships for most teens can also propel some to make dangerous connections with strangers. In fact, 32 percent of online teens reported that a stranger had contacted them, either through a social networking site such as MySpace.com or other private communication venue or chat room, according to the 2007 Pew study. And a 2003 Journal of Adolescence study (Vol. 26, No. 1, pages 105-119) of more than 1,500 youth ages 10 to 17 reveals that 25 percent have formed casual online friendships and 14 percent have formed close online friendships or online romances.

Those at particular risk include teens who are highly troubled--with a history of depression or physical or sexual victimization, for example--and those with high parent-child conflict, says the study's lead author, Janis Wolak, JD, also with CCRC.

"These kids really are looking to escape from their environment," she says. "They may not have a good network of family and friends to bounce things off to determine what's appropriate [online] and what's not."

While some troubled teens may fall into unhealthy romantic relationships online, others suffer from online harassment--ranging from relentless teasing to physical threats, both from people they know offline and from those they meet online, says Mitchell. She says the sheer magnitude of people who may see something posted online about a victim of cyber-bullying sometimes makes it worse than face-to-face schoolyard taunting.

"[The Internet] takes the whole writing on the bathroom door [concept] to a completely different perspective," Mitchell says.

For psychologists, the Internet may be just one aspect of adolescent social development, but it's one that should be monitored closely as it continues to grow, says Gross. What is for sure, however, is that the Internet adds a new dimension to many psychological problems--addiction and social anxiety, for example--that existed well before the Internet.

"Ultimately we have to...determine how this activity connects with the rest of teenagers' lives and all of the important factors that we already know are affecting their friendships and well-being," says Gross.