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Youth Culture Window

Teenagers as Digital Citizens
Some are Good...Some are Not
An article from David R. Smith at TheSource4YM.com
11/21/2011


Friends. Status updates. Comments. Messages. Notifications. These are the pillars of teenagers’ online community. But some of teens’ online interactions make many wonder if this community could use a police force.

Teens’ Place in a Digital Society
Yes, I just wrote about teenagers’ use (and misuse) of social networking sites in my last article, but the prevalence of online social connectivity is one of the most defining characteristics of this generation, and thus, worthy of one more look this year.

Fortunately, The Pew Internet and American Life Project just released the findings of their report from 2011 about teens’ use of social media. They performed an in-depth study on almost 800 teenagers from around the country and discovered that:

  • 95% of kids ages 12-17 are online
  • teens’ internet use has “intensified” during recent years – 46% say they log on several times a day compared to just 24% in 2004
  • 80% of those kids use at least one social networking website such as Twitter, Facebook, or MySpace
  • 41% of these teens have multiple social networking accounts
  • Twitter use by teens has doubled in the last two years, but the numbers are still relatively low; only 16% of teens use this outlet
  • girls are slightly more prone to use social networking sites than boys

(In a somewhat related study, The American Public Health Association has identified what they call hyper-networking, the act of spending more than 3 hours on social networking sites per school day. Their research suggests that 11% of teens fit into this category. APHA also found that hyper-networking teens were at higher risks of depression, suicide, substance use, and several other potentially dangerous practices.)

Like I said in the last Youth Culture Window article, when it comes to online social networks, Facebook is king; 93% of social networking teens have a profile on Zuckerberg’s pet project. Just to show you how much bigger Facebook is than everybody else, 2nd place belonged to MySpace which claimed a mere 24%.

And what are teens using social media for? The safe answer is “lots of stuff,” but as this simple chart from Pew shows, a more intuitive answer is “connecting.” Online social networking sites are most-often used for social networking…online.

Go figure.

Look at how many of these top activities hinge on relationships (in one way or another).

But not all that interaction is positive.

Digital Drama
This article from USA Today (which is based off of Pew’s study) does a good job distinguishing between the mixed bag of positives and negatives that social media presents to teens. According to Pew’s study, 69% of social media-using teens said that their peers are mostly kind to each other in social networks. 20% said their peers were mostly unkind, and an additional 11% said “it depends.” While that definitely leaves room for improvement, Pew uncovered several other disturbing practices of teens.

  • 88% of social networking teens say they have seen someone be mean or cruel to another person

  • 47% said they see such behavior “only once in a while” while 29% say they see meanness “sometimes.” (12% say they witness cruel behavior “frequently”)

  • 15% said they have personally experienced harassment directed at them in the past 12 months

  • 19% of teens report being bullied in the last 12 months (and 50% of these were bullied in multiple venues)

That’s bad…but it gets worse still.

Since online cruelty is a reality for these teens, Pew asked about their response to it. The findings are far from encouraging. 35% of teens “frequently just ignore what is going on” and 2% “frequently join in the harassment.” Only 20% of teens tell an online antagonist to knock it off.

Given this amount of negative interaction, many wonder what the best way to monitor it is.

Policing a Digital Community
Fortunately, Pew found that “a vast majority” of parents of online teens have had serious conversations about their kids’ online behaviors. Further, the teens themselves seem to back up their parents’ claims. For example, 94% of parents and 88% of teens say they’ve talked with one another about the proper way to deal with online situations. (That’s really good news because in similar studies, there have been serious gaps found between what parents think and what teens actually do.)

The way parents monitor their kids’ online social networking seems to be changing – and improving – a bit. 54% of parents claim to use controls on their kids’ computers and 34% have done the same with their kids’ cell phones. It’s good to hear that some parents are now monitoring cell phones…since everything available on a laptop can be accessed by mobile devices like cell phones. This is a start, but more parents have to police the 4th Screen.

When it comes to our teens, we all want them to be good citizens. Here are a couple of very simple, but very effective ideas to help ensure your teenager is a good digital citizen.

  1. Ask questions. At the end of last week’s article, I offered a list of questions that would help parents better understand their kids’ use of social media. Because of Pew’s findings, I would again stress the importance of asking good questions.

      If you could change one thing about your friends’ use of social media, what would it be?
      Have you ever witnessed cruel/mean interactions between peers online?
      If so, how do you handle it?
      How does online life affect offline life?
      In what ways can I help you manage your social media?

  2. Find answers. We definitely want our teens to be equipped on how to handle hurtful online interaction, but rather than simply give answers to them (in lecture format), guide them to answers by talking with them. Asking them questions makes them think through the situation for themselves. A “discovered” answer is almost always better than a “dictated” answer.

I’ve said it before, I’ll say it again: we must parent in two worlds today, a real one and an online one. All too often, our teens’ real world is impacted by their online habits. Until we take leadership in both, we’re not doing all we can to help them.



David R. Smith David R. Smith is a 15-year youth ministry veteran who helps youth workers and parents through his writing, training, and speaking. David specializes in sharing the gospel, and equipping others do the same. He co-authored his first book this year, Ministry By Teenagers. David provides free resources to anyone who works with teenagers on his website, DavidRSmith.org. David resides with his wife and son in Tampa, Florida.


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