Connected at any Cost: Adolescent Developmental Needs and Online Relationship Formation

Susan M Miller, Kenneth L Miller, Christine Allison. Adolescent Online Social Communication and Behavior: Relationship Formation on the Internet. Hershey, PA: Information Science Reference, 2010.


The purpose of this chapter (and indeed this book) is to explore relationships among adolescent development and the use of Internet technologies that influence the formation of online relationships. The focus on adolescence is designed to illuminate unique developmental characteristics and needs of that group which influence use of the Internet environment for forming relationships.

Developmental characteristics of the adolescent include unfolding abilities to think abstractly, to consider multiple points of views, to engage in counterfactual reasoning, and to reason deductively. These characteristics describe the stage of cognitive development identified by Jean Piaget (1967) as formal operational reasoning. For each stage of cognitive development Piaget described a form of egocentricism or limitation in thinking. A fundamental limitation for the adolescent is that these new-found abilities mean that they can envision utopian conditions while criticizing the state of the real world. The developing capacity for metacognition (i.e., being able to think about their thinking) translates to a high degree of self-consciousness. This characteristic is mirrored by new-found self-centeredness – the teen’s belief that s/he is special, invulnerable, and omnipotent.

These egocentric characteristics are often discussed in terms of psychosocial and affective behaviors typical of adolescents. Erikson’s (1950/1993) psychosocial theory provides a heuristic description of the opposing forces felt by most adolescents – the press to find their identity in society while overcoming their sense of confusion about who they will become. As adolescents experience new ways of seeing the world, they are afforded expanded interpersonal and social opportunities. Adolescent development takes place in a sphere of otherness, where the important social referents are other adolescents.

The importance of peer relationships is reflected by the frequency with which teenagers use the Internet for social communication. Data from a National Center for Education Statistics 2003 survey (N = 56,000 families) revealed that about 70% of students in grades 6 to 8, and 79% of high school students used the Internet (DeBell & Chapman, 2006). Older adolescents were more likely to use the Internet for social communication: 64% of high school students and 45% of 6 through 8 graders used the Internet for emailing/instant messaging.

One difficulty in constructing a sufficient, if not comprehensive, understanding of online adolescent relationship formation is the rapidly evolving nature of Internet communication technologies. Teens who participated in early research studies (just over a decade ago) were limited in their communication goals by the types of applications available to them (i.e., public arenas such as listservs and chat rooms or private spaces using email). After 1997/1998, instant messaging emerged as a communication tool. Around this time social network sites began to support communication among individuals already connected, but teens had little access until MySpace began to attract teenagers in 2004. Facebook, originally designed for college students, was opened to high school students in 2005 (Boyd & Ellison, 2007). An early study of novice online users found that adolescents used multi-user domains (MUDs) to meet new people (Subrahmanyam, Greenfield, Kraut, & Gross, 2001). Referring to current massive multiplayer online role-playing games (i.e., MMOs or MMORPGs), Yee (2006) reported that 20% of male users and 4.4% of female users were between 12 and 17 years old. As communication technologies become even more ubiquitous (e.g., multimedia phones, or integrated clothing and personal accessories) it is likely that the ways in which teens use and integrate them will dramatically evolve.

Chapter Objectives

The goal of this chapter is to explicate relationships among adolescent development, characteristics of Internet communication tools, and online relationship formation. After reading this chapter, the intended readers (i.e., researchers, teachers, students, and parents) should understand:

  1. The major cognitive and psychosocial developmental characteristics that emerge occur during adolescence
  2. The affordances offered by the Internet for formation and support of online relationships in the context of anonymous and cue-free Internet communications
  3. Associations among types of online relationships, Internet affordances, and relationship quality
    Psychosocial, motivational, and environmental variables that may influence the co-construction of adolescent online relationships
  4. Teen vulnerability in online relationships based on development needs for friendships and a search for identity
  5. Resources for adolescent safety and well-being in online environments

Background on the Developing Adolescent

Adolescence is the transition period from child-hood to adulthood. During this period individuals at about 11 or 12 years of age begin a new stage of cognitive and psychosocial development. Jean Piaget’s theory of cognitive development provides a useful framework for understanding the thinking of adolescents (Elkind, 1967, 1984; Rosser, 1994). At about six or seven years of age children begin to reason logically about the physical world: they understand the concept of numbers and one-to-one relationships necessary for mathematical logic, they can group objects into classes and sub-classes, and can demonstrate reversibility in thinking. Piaget called this stage concrete operational thinking: children develop reasoning skills about the concrete real world, but are not able to think logically about abstract or counterfactual ideas (Rosser, 1994).

Around the age of 11 or 12 years, given appropriate situational presses such as those that occur in formal educational settings as well as informal learning environments, cognitive structures emerge that allow reasoning at the abstract level. This is Piaget’s stage of formal operational thinking. Whereas younger children can only think about events that actually happen or define concepts in terms of visible features and actions, adolescents are freed from confines of fact-based thinking and can now think and reason about abstract propositions or concepts. Abstract thinking means that adolescents begin to understand and use simile, metaphor, and parody (Elkind, 1984) and these new ways of thinking fascinate the teenager.

Each stage of cognitive development is associated with limitations that are a function of that particular way of seeing the world -an idea Piaget called egocentrism. The same reasoning skills involved in abstract and hypothetical-deductive reasoning enables adolescents to think about their own thinking (i.e., metacognition) as well as think about what others might be thinking. Initially, this new perspective can result in an uncomfortable degree of self-consciousness. The teenager really does believe he or she is at center-stage – a form of adolescent egocentricism that David Elkind (1984; Elkind & Bowen, 1979) called the imaginary audience. Because of their limited experience thinking in the abstract realm, many teenagers, especially those in the early formal operational years, believe that all eyes (adoring or critical) are on them. As any parent or educator knows, they are not to be dissuaded from a belief that how they look or behave is of ultimate concern to others.

Adolescent self-consciousness is mirrored by a multi-faceted sense of self-centeredness that Elkind called personal fable: the teen’s belief that they are unique and special, invulnerable to harm or injury, and omnipotent (Alberts, Elkind, & Ginsberg, 2007; Eklind, 1967). In the minds of many teenagers, their sense of personal fable protects them from negative repercussions of their behaviors; they enjoy the belief that nothing bad ever happens to the hero/heroine of a story. Invulnerability and the sense of uniqueness have been associated with mental health problems for some teens (Aalsma, Lapsley, & Flannery, 2006).

Although the idea of personal fable as a type of adolescent egocentricism is based on Piaget’s cognitive developmental theory, personal fable connects underlying cognitive structures to the commonly-recognized affective and behavioral characteristics of most adolescents. Because they believe they are unique and special, most teenagers are sure “no one else has experienced what I am feeling” or “no one can understand me.” (Elkind, 1967). These beliefs can lead a teenager to feel different and isolated from others. The adolescent’s sense of invulnerability (“it can’t happen to me”) has been linked to adolescent risk-taking and their sense of omnipotence leads them to believe that they can handle any situation.

As adolescents experience new ways of seeing the world they are concurrently afforded expanded interpersonal and social opportunities. Rapid physical and sexual growth fuels the adolescent to reconsider what s/he has learned and who s/he is in light of the demands and opportunities of the adult world (Erikson, 1950/1993). Adolescence is the period when identity formation is the major concern. The adolescent is not just focused on understanding who s/he is now (“Who am I”?); abstract reasoning skills permit consideration of future possibilities. Thus, the adolescent considers questions such as “Who will I become?” “What type of occupation will I have?” “Will I be successful?” Foundational questions of identity include future occupation, ideology, world view, sexual orientation, as well as religion, politics, relationships, culture, personality, and body image (Santrock, 2009). As Erikson noted, the myriad possibilities envisioned by the adolescent can lead to a sense of role confusion at this stage. This confusion may involve uncertainty about the future: “What will be my place in society?”

One strategy used by adolescents to avoid a sense of confusion is to “fall in love” which certainly influences the teen’s drive to form new relationships. Another strategy to stave off this sense of confusion is the formation of cliques and social groups. Being a member of an ingroup provides a temporary sense of security in being different (and generally better) than the outgroup. These ingroup-outgroup associations are often based on transient and trivial artificial social identifiers which change from year to year (Erikson, 1950/1993). Adherence to ingroup mores highlights a second characteristic of the adolescent at this stage of development: the importance of ideology to the adolescent who is struggling to develop adult ethics and values (Erikson, 1950/1993). With newfound cognitive abilities teens are able to construct elaborate abstract theories to change the world based on altruistic values (Piaget, 1967). Concurrently, the adolescent’s sense of specialness, in the words of Piaget a “disquieting megalomania and conscious egocentricity” (p. 66), provides the certainty that s/he can create this vision.

Adolescent growth involves the unfolding of new cognitive skills and personal awareness, which at any given point in time are likely to be tenuously held and tenuously executed. Adolescents are risk-takers (Lightfoot, 1997). They are particularly vulnerable, straining against a system of policies and conventions that protected them as children, but they are not yet ready to assume the roles and responsibilities of adults. One reason that we as a society are interested in, and concerned about, the affordances offered by cyber-communication tools are potential threats that the use of these technologies hold for vulnerable adolescents.

Growing Up Connected

Adolescent Use of the Internet for Relationship Formation

The cognitive and psychosocial needs of adolescents create the impetus for relationship formation, but place many at considerable risk for developing less than desirable connections. Successful relationship development requires partners who are able to self-disclose and establish intimacy, skills associated with self-awareness and self-confidence. The wide availability of public and private Internet environments may promote development of healthy and meaningful relationships for many adolescents. However, for those experiencing problems traversing the landscape of adolescence, the same communication options may create opportunities to experiment with relationship-building in unhealthy ways, communicate without the responsibilities imposed by real world interactions, and develop meaningless, pathological, and even dangerous relationships.

Most teenagers want to communicate with each as often as possible. It is as though they are compelled to share their new ways of thinking with others who are in the same stage of cognitive awakening. It is not surprising, then, that teenagers make use of the latest technologies to establish or extend these relationships. compared to adult users, adolescents more frequently use Internet communication technologies such as instant messaging, chat rooms (Kraut, et al., 1998; Lenhart, Rainie, & Lewis, 2001) and MUDs (Subrahmanyam, Greenfield, Kraut, & Gross, 2001). In most cases the content of online conversations among existing friends are consistent with the developmental level of adolescents: (a) “friends and gossip” (Gross, 2004, p. 642); (b) “mundane as well as the most emotionally fraught and important conversations of their daily lives” (Lenhart, et al., 2001, p. 10) and (c) “small talk – gossip and news of the day, with a here-and-now flavor (Subrahmanyam, et al., 2001, p. 14).

For these types of communication it appears that instant messaging, followed by email, is the communication tool of choice. Gross’s survey in 2000/2001 of 261 teenagers (7th and 10th graders) found that instant messaging was the most frequently cited Internet communication tool (used about 40 minutes daily) followed by email (used about 22 minutes daily); considerably less time was spent using chats or message boards (roughly 7 minutes each). Eighty-two percent of instant messaging occurred with existing friends. During the same time frame, the Pew Internet & American Life survey of 754 adolescents ages 12 to 17 revealed similar results (Lenhart, et al., 2001). As part of an early Internet study from Carnegie Mellon University HomeNet Project, data from 110 teenage participants (ages 10 to 19) also revealed that, except for homework, the greatest use of the Internet was to communicate with local and distant friends (Subrahmanyam, et al., 2001).

It would be a mistake to suggest that teens use the Internet only to communicate with existing friends. In the studies previously cited, a small percentage of adolescent participants reported using the Internet to meet strangers, sometimes for the purpose of making new friends. In these instances the content of communication was consistent with typical adolescent issues. Analysis of chat room discourse found an emphasis on sexuality and identity (Subrahmanyam, Greenfield, & Tynes, 2004) and an analysis of social networking sites revealed a similar emphasis on sexuality and various risk-taking behaviors (Williams & Merten, 2008).

A substantial number of teenagers purposefully use the Internet to connect with strangers. Without providing precise data, Gross (2004) reported that a few teens spent online time to meet new people using communication tools such as bulletin boards and chat rooms. In the PEW study, 32% of the teen participants reported using the Internet in order to make new friends (Lenhart, et al., 2001). Although a larger number of teen participants reported using MUDs and chat rooms to meet new people in the HomeNet project, the study took place prior to the availability of instant messaging or social network sites (Subrahmanyam, et al., 2001). A recent study of 156 teens (ages 15 to 18) revealed that over a quarter communicated in chat rooms with individuals that they had not previously known, although over half typically communicated online with existing friends (Subrahmanyam & Lin, 2007).

Social networking and relationship formation also occurs in online gaming environments. Parks and Roberts (1998) surveyed 235 users of MOOs (MUDs, object oriented). Participants in this study ranged in age from 13 to 74 years; half were between the ages of 17 and 26. In contrast to the previous studies, almost all respondents (93.6%) reported that they formed a personal relationship online and 86.6% of the relationships were with opposite sex: 40.6% were close friendships (communicated 3 to 4 times weekly), 26.3% were friendships (communicated 1 to 2 times weekly), and 26.3% were romantic relationships (communicated daily).

One advantage of online communication for teens appears to be that they can simultaneously engage in other activities such as completing homework, downloading music, playing games, and telephoning (Gross, 2004; Lenhart, et al., 2001). Authors of the PEW TeenageLife Online noted “multitasking is a way of life” for teens (Lenhart, et al., p. 10). Online communication is becoming a group social activity: over 80% of teens reported being together in a group to send an instant message to another friend or friends also grouped together. Most teens use the Internet as another communication affordance to stay in touch with their close and not-so-close circle of friends. Instant messaging has not replaced the telephone but has become ubiquitous for social networking (Gross, 2004; Lenhart, et al.)

The Quality of Online Relationships

The degree to which a relationship is meaningful can be defined in terms of strong ties versus weak ties (Granovetter, 1973; Kraut, et al., 1998; Mesch & Talmud, 2006). Several qualities define this strong to weak continuum: closeness, emotional intimacy, reciprocal trust, self-disclosure, a shared history of experiences, and the ability to communicate about a large range of topics are thought to be associated with stronger ties. Researchers have advanced two hypotheses about the impact of the increased opportunities for online communication as they relate to the quality of relationships: the reduction hypothesis assumes that friendships initiated online are of lesser quality and hinders the building of intimate offline/real world friends; the stimulation hypothesis postulates that online communication increases the depth and breadth of online and/or offline relationships. It is difficult to establish conclusive support for either hypothesis given the changing nature of Internet communication affordances and contradictory research results, although mounting evidence favors the Internet as extending and supporting relationships (Blais, et al., 2008).

The perceived value of online communication to enhance existing relationships is illustrated by findings from the PEW study (Lenhart, et al., 2001) which revealed that most teens used instant messaging to communicate with friends and classmates. Almost half reported that such communications improved their relationships with existing friends. More frequent communications were associated with perceived improvement. For a large number of adolescents (61%), time spent online with close relationships did not reduce time spent with friends in face-to-face situations. Cross-cultural support for the stimulation hypothesis was found in a study of 665 Dutch adolescents ages 10 to 16 years (Valkenburg & Peter, 2007). Almost all (88%) used the Internet to communicate and more frequent online communications were associated with perceptions of closer relationships to such friends.

Two frequently cited studies in support of the reduction hypothesis (Kraut, et al., 1998; Nie & Ebring, 2000 in Bargh & McKenna, 2004) have been frequently criticized for flaws in methodology and interpretation (e.g., McKenna & Bargh, 2000). Kraut and colleagues followed 93 families (110 children ages 10 to 19) which were provided with computers and Internet access as part of Carnegie Mellon’s HomeNet Project. The first sample drawn in 1995 was from families who had teenagers enrolled in one of four Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, high schools; the second sample drawn in 1996 also was not random. Initial findings (from year one or two depending on the family’s start date) revealed that the frequency of online communication negatively influenced participants’ social networks and communication among family members. Online communication was also associated with increased loneliness (Kraut, et al., 1998). In comments critical of this study, McKenna and Bargh (2000) noted that although reported findings were statistically significant, the actual impact was slight. In fact, as participants in the study used the Internet for a longer period of time the opposite effect was found (Kraut, et al., 2002). Commenting on data from the 110 adolescents in the HomeNet project, Subrahmanyam, et al., (2001) nonetheless concluded that online relationships were weaker than offline relationships. Respondents reported they felt less close to the individual with whom they communicated most frequently online compared to the person with whom they communicated most frequently offline. Relationships that started online rarely progressed to face-to-face meetings. The same pattern was reported by Subrahmanyam & Lin (2007). For most of the 156 teenagers in their study who started online relationships, the relationships did not progress to face-to-face meetings.

Contradictory results were found in two studies with older participants. In a sample of 568 newsgroup users, McKenna, Green, & Gleason (2003) found that a large percentage of online relationships migrated to other communication modes: telephone (63%), cards/letters (54%), and photographs (56%). Eventually a substantial percent (54%) met face-to-face. Almost all respondents reported that online relationships were “as real, as important, and as close” (p. 22) as offline relationships and a large percentage of these relationships continued after 2 years. The average age for participants in this study was 32 years (range 13 to 70 years) which reflects different cognitive and psychosocial abilities to form and maintain relationships than those of adolescents.

In an older sample of users of MOOs, in which half of the 235 users were ages 17 to 26 years (Parks & Roberts, 1998), most participants reported making 4 to 15 new online relationships and almost all relationships migrated to other communication modes: email (80%), telephone (66.8%), cards/letters (54.5%), and photographs (40.5%). Eventually a substantial percent (40%) met face-to-face. These individuals rated their online close relationships moderate to high on all but one measure of relationship quality. For the 155 participants who also provided information regarding their offline relationships, no differences between online and offline relationships were reported in terms of perceived breadth, depth, and use of language unique to the relationship. Yet, other measures favored offline relationships: (a) they were of longer duration and consisted of more frequent interactions and (b) they were statistically significantly rated as more interdependent, predictable/understandable, committed, and convergent than online relationships.

Similar findings in favor of offline relationships were reported from a one-year longitudinal study of 884 adolescents with average age of 15 years (Blais, et al., 2008). Best friendships and romantic relationships developed through instant messaging (presumably with existing friends) were statistically significantly associated with increases in three beneficial relationship qualities: (a) commitment, (b) intimacy/companionship, and (c) trust/communication. Best friendships and romantic relationships in chat rooms (presumably with previously unknown individuals) were statistically significantly associated with decreased intimacy and companionship as well as more alienation and conflict in romantic relationships. Adding to the equivocal nature of research findings on this topic is the fact that although findings were statistically significant in both studies, the small differences in quality between offline and online relationships makes it difficult to ignore the potential value of online relationships.

More compelling evidence for stronger offline than online relationships comes from a study of 987 Israeli adolescents with an average age of 15.5 years (Mesch & Talmud, 2006). Friendships made online were rated lower on the dimensions of intimacy, strength, and duration compared to offline friendships. Online relationships exhibited less multiplexity of content and activities. This is the idea that the closeness of a relationship is a function of (a) a shared history with multiple experiences and (b) a wide range of content topics that can be discussed. Multiplexity in a relationship is particularly relevant for teen relationships in light of their identity explorations. Teens reported they were more likely to talk with offline friends about personal problems and romance issues (although no differences were found for more neutral topics such as school, parents, friends, and hobbies). They also reported sharing a greater number of activities with offline friends. Some activities such as telephone conversations and meetings at school or friends’ homes were also shared with friends made online but these occurrences were fewer in number.

In summary, teens perceive that online communication improves relationships with existing friends. Although some teenagers report close online relationships with individuals they met online, evidence suggests that these relationships do not migrate to offline involvement. Even when teens report feeling close to their online partners, when asked to compare offline and online relationships along various measures of relationship quality, they reported that relation-ships started online were weaker than those made offline. If Mesch & Talmud’s (2006) multiplexity distinguishes meaningful relationships from those less meaningful, it appears unlikely that truly meaningful relationships can be made online. One defining feature of multiplexity is that the individuals create a shared history consisting of multiple experiences. Communicating only online does not provide opportunities for adolescents to develop shared experiences across a range of activities and time. On the other hand, communicating online with offline friends about offline shared experiences may serve to strengthen the sense of shared history.

Troubled Teens Online

As adolescents engage in the process of identity exploration, self-awareness and other relation-ship-building skills are characteristically under-developed. While most teens are successful in navigating the search for identify, for others a host of innate and environmental factors may interact with developmental needs to create significant problems in identity formation and relationship development. Alienation from parents and authority figures, a burgeoning sex drive, loneliness, social anxiety, egocentric thinking, poor judgment, and a limited sense of self in the context of overwhelming needs for making connections to others leads many adolescents to create less than ideal relationships. Bound by the egocentricism of adolescence, teenagers are often unable to evaluate the qualities of another person’s intentions independent of the role that person plays in the teen’s own imaginary audience. The issue is one of under-differentiation by the teen between his/her thoughts and feelings and the thoughts and feelings of others (Elkind, 1984).

Of concern to parents and others is that the most vulnerable teens are least likely to make good judgments when engaging in online communications with strangers. This concern is supported by in-depth analyses of teens who made close or romantic relationships with individuals they met online. A study of 1501 adolescents (10 to 17 years old) revealed that 25% reported making casual relationships and 14% reported making close or romantic relationships with individuals they met online (Wolak, Mitchell, & Finkelhor, 2002). Further analyses of data from the subset of teens (N = 210) who reported close or romantic online relationships yielded two red-flag variables (Wolak, Mitchell, & Finkelhor, 2003). For both male and female adolescents, teens who demonstrated high levels of depression, victimization (typically by peers), or other problematic life events were more likely than other teens to make close online relationships. So too were teens who reported some type of difficulty with their parents. For girls, this difficulty was child-parent conflict which consisted of behaviors such as yelling, nagging, and reduction of privileges; for boys, this difficulty was a low level of communication with parents. Girls who were classified as highly troubled or who reported high child-parent conflict were twice as likely as other girls to develop intimate online relationships. For both girls and boys, access to the Internet at home and high Internet use were also statistically significant predictors of forming close online relationships. Other predictor variables for making close online relationships were being White, non-Hispanic for boys and being slightly older (ages 14-17 compared to 10 to 13) for girls.

The concern for troubled teens making online relationships arises from substantial evidence that troubled or victimized teens are more likely to be at risk for re-victimization or abuse (Finkelhor, Omrod, & Turner, 2007; Finkelhor, Omrod, Turner, & Hamby, 2005). There is evidence that this phenomenon extends online (Mitchell, Finkelhor, & Wolak, 2007). Wolak, Finkelhor, and Mitchell (2008) reported that individuals who were classified as high-risk, unrestricted interactors in online interactions were more likely to be adolescents, to engage in high levels of Internet use, and to use a wide variety of online communication tools. Such high-risk individuals were reported to be substantially more likely to produce clinically significant scores for rule-breaking behavior, depression, and social problems and to report victimization by others in the real world. In the Wolak, et al. 2003 study, troubled teens who formed close online relationships (compared to untroubled teens) were more likely to form online romantic relationships (19% versus 6%), to have been approached for an face-to-face meeting (22% versus 11%), and to have met their close or romantic partner face-to-face (30% vs. 18%). Of the 48 adolescents who eventually met face-to-face, troubled teens put themselves at greater risk as they were less likely to have told their parents prior to the meeting (44% vs. 26%). The researchers noted that having not informed parents or friends about their online relationships, these troubled teens lacked protective guidance from parents or peers. As an indicator that these teens may have formed unrealistic expectations, they were more likely to say that the person they met face-to-face did not look as they expected (8% vs. 11%).

Online Presentations of Self

One frequently cited hypothesis regarding teen use of the Internet for relationship formation is that teenagers who have difficulty forming friendships offline use the Internet to compensate for lack of requisite social skills. The anonymity of online communication is thought to provide a shield that protects the teen from negative consequences or repercussions (e.g., rejection) that can occur in face-to-face attempts to form relationships. In this cue-free environment, teens may be more likely to self-disclose personal information. Given that the primary goal of adolescence is to develop a personal identity, do adolescents use the anonymous comfort of the Internet to express their true selves, or, perhaps, as we think is more accurate, an idealized version of themselves?

Results from an innovative lab experiment with pairs of previously unacquainted male and female undergraduate college students suggest that self-disclosure is related to perceived online intimacy and closeness. In this study (McKenna, Green, & Gleason, 2003, study 3) unacquainted student pairs met in an Internet chat room and also face-to-face. Unknown to the participants, the stranger they met online and the stranger they met face-to-face was the same individual. The students reported liking the person they met online more than the person they met face-to-face. This liking was associated with ratings of intimacy and closeness of the online conversation but not of the face-to-face conversation. Why was the online stranger better liked? The answer may be revealed from a parallel series of studies with college undergraduates. Bargh, McKenna and Fitzsimons (2002) found that undergraduate students were better able to present their (presumably) true selves during online conversations with strangers than in face-o-face encounters. This conclusion was based on a match between students’ description of their true selves and the descriptions of students made by online strangers (and not by the strangers after the face-to-face meeting). The researchers made an important point about this conclusion – the study’s methodology could only determine that the teens were successful in communicating a self online to an unknown individual. Whether this was the teen’s true self that emerged as a result of the anonymity of the Internet or an idealized self that was presented online cannot be determined from this study. Researchers also found that students projected characteristics they associated with an ideal close friend onto the online, but not face-to-face stranger. It is uncertain whether it is the teen’s true self or an idealized version that is being presented in online communications.

A long history of research in the field of computer-mediated communication suggests that the lack of salient personal cues in online environments may act to level the playing field among individuals as they communicate (e.g., Sproull & Kiesler, 1991). The absence of cues regarding age, sex, attractiveness, disabilities, status, and other characteristics are thought to create an environment that enables individuals to freely self-disclose or to selectively present an idealized self (see review by Walther, 1996). The lure of a seemingly risk-free environment could be attractive to socially anxious or introverted teenagers. This was found to be true in the study of an older sample (average age 32 years) of newsgroup users (McKenna, Green, & Gleason, 2003, studies 1 and 2). Socially anxious and lonely participants were more likely to disclose their real selves in online relationships. Might the same be true for adolescents? Are socially anxious or introverted teens more comfortable expressing themselves online and are they more likely to seek new relationships online? The alternative to this idea, referred to as the rich get richer hypothesis, is that extroverted individuals who are more comfortable making friends offline will also be more comfortable making friends online. A survey of 493 Dutch adolescents (average age 13.4 years) revealed that extroversion indirectly predicted online relationship formation (Peter, Valkenburg, & Schouten, 2005). In this study, formation of an online relationship was directly related to the frequency of online communication and the degree of self-disclosure in the communication (a finding consistent with the lab studies reported previously). Despite the frequently-posed hypothesis that introverted adolescents take advantage of the anonymous and cue-free online environment to make friends, introverted teens in this study used the Internet less frequently and self-disclosed less than did extroverted teens. Although it was extroverted teenagers who were more likely to make friends online, a subset of introverted teens did form online relationships. These teens professed a motivation to use the Internet deliberately for making online friends. A subsequent survey of 412 Dutch adolescents (average age 14.1 years) revealed similar findings (Peter, Valkenburg, & Schouten, 2006). Introversion was not associated with meeting strangers online. The 11% of teens who talked only or predominately with strangers online said they did so for entertainment value or to meet new friends. The researchers concluded that motivation to make online friends may supersede the influence of personality characteristics in the formation of online relationships. They followed-up on this conclusion with a larger survey of 1,340 adolescents (Schouten, Valkenburg, & Peter, 2007). Findings from this study lead the researchers to suggest that it was not the anonymity of the Internet or the reduced cues in the virtual environment per se that led teenagers to self-disclosure, but rather the teenagers’ awareness that they could take advantage of these Internet features to control the presentation of an online self. These teens felt less inhibited and, in turn, increased self-disclosures. This behavior held true for both socially anxious and normal teenagers.

Experimenting with Alternative Selves

The primary goal of adolescence is to develop a personal identity. The teen years provide manifold opportunities to explore and try out tentative identities in order to determine a goodness of fit with the evolving adolescent’s psyche, beliefs, values, and goals. Although experimentation is crucial for a successful integration of personal identity, the process is typically fraught with detours, blind alleys, and poor fits that are dynamically abandoned or revised as an emergent self becomes increasingly crystallized with time and experience. With a more comprehensible sense of identity, adolescents are able to communicate this understanding to others in their search create meaning through relationships. In the absence of such understanding, the process of forming meaningful relationships is significantly impaired.

Internet-based communication and social gaming tools provide myriad opportunities for adolescents to test evolving identities and relationships. In the developmental press of adolescence, many will use these online communication opportunities to clandestinely present tentative approximations of the real self to both meet immediate needs and determine reactions to an unsure and untried sense of self. Based on feedback from online friends or gamers, adolescents may continuously edit their cyber presentations of self until responses affirm a meaningful fit with an emergent identity. Others with more developed identities may use these tools to test the uncertain waters of creating and maintaining meaningful relationships.

In the previously mentioned study by Gross (2004), half of the 261 adolescents reported they pretended to be someone else while communicating online and this typically occurred while they were in the company of friends or family (rather than alone). Almost all pretended to be older and about 20% pretended to be of the opposite sex or sexual orientation. Only a few (11%) indicated that they were deliberately testing other persona or identities; half pretended “as a joke” (p. 643) or to protect their identity (16%).

A long history of online game-playing, from early text-based domains (MUDs) through current massive multiplayer online role-playing games (MMOs or MMORPGs), has provided abundant opportunities for teenagers to practice forming and testing hypotheses, use combinatorial analysis skills, and engage in counter-factual reasoning. The popularity of these environments may result from the corresponding emergence of adolescent cognitive and psychological capabilities and the logical but fantasy worlds of online games. The suspended reality of online games may enable adolescents to experience aspects of the personal fable (i.e., specialness, invulnerability, omnipotence) or explore different aspects of themselves in relative safety (Calvert, Mahler, Zehnder, Jenkins, & Lee, 2003). In most MMORPG environments, players select a role or avatar and engage in a quest or compete for rewards by communicating with virtual, non-player characters who parlay quests, direct players to other virtual non-player characters, or provide advice on how to continue play. It is through the suggested quests that the adolescent’s sense of specialness, invulnerability, and omnipotence may be perpetuated through rich fantasy-like descriptions. For example, in currently popular “World of Warcraft” one virtual non-player character states “you have already proven your bravery to me, but if you truly wish to face the necromancer, then you must now prove your skill against his minions.” Such interactions often communicate moral and ethical worldviews that allow a teen player to test behaviors based on those values while extending the myth of personal fable (Wolf, 2007).

Avatars can act in the virtual environment and engage in real-time interplay with other players and non-player characters. Through standard or player-created macros, the avatar can be made to engage in a variety of behaviors including an offer of verbal thanks or welcome to other players or demonstrate emotions such as throwing a kiss or jumping for joy. This sense of real-time communication encourages a real-world sense of personal fable. This gaming environment also engenders the ability to create and manipulate multiple identities within that personal fable (Gee, 2007). Turkle (2001) proposed that the game itself engenders a player to take multiple perspectives or adopt different identities in reaction to actions or statements made by non-player characters. For example, in a scenario where a player has completed a quest to discover the nest and kill a monster bird and is then told that the bird has fledglings who will be left alone, the avatar’s identity is transformed from brave conqueror to compassionate caretaker.

A developmental value of these online game worlds may be that the fantasy-stories permit adolescents to use their emotions in order to direct their new cognitive abilities. According to Egan (2001), an important value of stories is that, unlike real life, they have a beginning, middle, and end. This closure brings children “a rare security and satisfaction” regarding how to feel about what is being learned (Egan, 2001, para. 23). Given the turmoil that most adolescents feel, they too may experience “a rare security and satisfaction” at a game’s endpoint. Egan’s’ comments about children’s fantasy stories may also apply to adolescent fantasy: “Fantasy creates the sense that there is something beyond or behind the surface of the everyday world. The sense of that mysterious something beyond or behind everyday reality can stimulate wonder and inquiry” (para. 55) which, in turn may be an “essential prerequisite for flexible scientific understanding” (para.54). Fantasy environments are not without pitfalls, however, for adolescents who are unable to appreciate the “transcendent quality” (Egan & Gajdamaschko, p. 13) that a character embodies rather than over-identifying with more salient trappings of a particular character.

Another hazard of engaging in fantasy gaming environments is the impact on offline relationships. Results of a nearly two-year study revealed that time spent online gaming during high school years improved the quality of offline friendships but decreased relationship quality with parents (Willoughby, 2008). A one-year longitudinal study found that teens who played online games and engaged primarily in other entertainment activities showed decreases in commitment, trust, and communication in romantic relationships (Blais, et al., 2008). However, these authors’ did not specify the types of games and assumed that playing games was a solo activity. Contrary to this solo-play belief, the multiplayer format is similar to MySpace and Facebook in that individuals can connect with their friends rather than be solo players in a world of strangers. Even within the context of game playing with strangers, 94% of online text-based gamers had formed close or romantic relationship with other players (Parks & Roberts, 1998).

Strategies for Promoting Adolescent Safety Online

Research findings presented in this chapter suggest that many, if not most, adolescents communicate online with friends and strangers without adverse consequences. However, these findings also reveal that for troubled adolescents the use of such tools is associated with far-reaching negative outcomes. In an effort to create safer online communication environments for children and adolescents, a wide-ranging number of organizations have taken action by providing guidelines for teen safety online (e.g., Federal Bureau of Investigation, 2008; Literacy Matters, n.d.). A typical list of parental guidelines for Internet safety is posted on the website of the St. Louis Children’s Hospital. These include: “establish clear rules for Internet use and develop an Internet safety contract with their teen,” “keep the computer in a public place in the house,” “use an Internet filtering device to limit access to inappropriate sites,” “instruct teens to never arrange face-to-face meeting with a person they have met on-line,” “establish an open line of communication with teens to discuss the activities they enjoy on-line and about the people they talk to or meet while on-line” (Hallman, 2008, p. 2). However, for at-risk, troubled teens open lines of communication with parents are frequently non-existent.

More investigations of the kind associated with the Crimes against Children Research Center (e.g., Mitchell, Wolak, Finkelhor, 2008) are needed to identify the sub-groups of teens who are most vulnerable and the conditions that increase their vulnerabilities. The importance of this research lies in an opportunity to identify and isolate variables that are most problematic. For example, of great concern to parents and others is the amount and type of personal information that teens often present on their social profile webpages (e.g., Williams & Merten, 2008). Should the focus be on educating teens about what and how they self-disclose? A recent research study suggested that it is not the content per se that led to inappropriate online contacts, but rather the act of responding to unknown persons online (Mitchell, Wolak, & Finkelhor, 2008). If this finding is replicated in future studies, then the corrective message to teens (i.e., not to respond) may provide greater protection for vulnerable adolescents.

The purposes of this chapter preclude an in-depth discussion of the nature and types of content presented on teen profiles sites or other online venues. However, these data have been reported (e.g., Greenfield, 2004; Tynes, Reynolds, & Greenfield, 2004; Subrahmanyam, Greenfield, & Tynes, 2004). Online, teenagers talk about sex (often crudely), display verbal aggression and overt prejudice, and risk making contact with strangers. These developmentally-related behaviors are not confined to the Internet (see Greenfield, 2004). Some evidence (Tynes, Reynolds, & Greenfield, 2004) suggests that teenagers who use monitored chat rooms display fewer overt inappropriate communications. But this is much like saying teens act more appropriately in front of their parents. In monitored chat rooms teens use other communication strategies such as coded language to get their points across. The best design for safe online use of the Internet may be adult guidance, wisdom, and interventions that aid teens through the minefield of adolescent development (e.g. Greenfield, 2004; Tynes, 2007).

Ideas for Future Research

Given the breadth of topics addressed in this chapter, a host of unanswered questions emerge for future investigation. We present a few ideas (in order of our personal interest). First, it is not without significance that adolescence is commonly discussed in terms of a search for identity. Despite slightly different starting points, the research avenue pursued by Schouten, Valkenberg, and Peter and the research developed by Bargh, McKenna, and colleagues converge on the importance of the self that is presented online. Communicating online with someone unknown may be the adolescent’s opportunity to present (a) his/her hidden, but true self, (b) an unconscious projection of his/her idealized self, or (c) through a calculated and controlled use of the anonymous and cue-free Internet environment, a select version of his/herself. The research methodology required to examine these questions will be challenging especially considering the argument by Greenfield and Yan (2006) to address the co-constructed nature of the Internet environment.

Second, a corollary of the search for identity is the reduction in confusion and anxiety provided by being a member of a group. Being a group member provides security for social affiliation but also requires the member to adopt and adhere to the mores of the group (Erikson, 1950/1993). This becomes problematic when the group is based on racial/ethnic stereotypes, criminal behaviors, or other negative characteristics. It may be possible to use the Internet and gaming environments to help adolescents see beyond group boundaries (e.g., Amichai-Hamburger & McKenna, 2006). For example, many MMOPRGs include factions which create a sense of identity for a player; however, as the player progresses through the game, s/he can join another faction with players outside his/her initial group.

Third, do the multiple perspectives provided by the structure of most online games or by contact with more mature players facilitate an adolescent’s emergence from egocentric limitations? Online gaming can provide opportunities to communicate with older adolescents or adults. Do adolescent perspectives change as the game scenarios bridge the gap between their understanding of the world and that of another player who may present with greater maturity, self-confidence, or cognitive complexity? With successive playing of the same games and associated constructs, do players begin to perceive that others experience the same feelings and similar beliefs? Might this same phenomenon occur in other online venues as well?


Research findings on relationships among adolescent developmental needs, use of online communication tools, and relationship development provide intriguing, yet incomplete, results. In this section we draw conclusions designed to provide possible explanations for these findings by focusing on the irregularly expanding cognitive and psychosocial abilities demonstrated by adolescents.

Adolescent cognitive developmental characteristics include unfolding abilities to think abstractly, to consider multiple points of view, to engage in counterfactual reasoning, and to reason deductively. These abilities are characteristic of, and related to, a capacity for metacognition (i.e., executive processing or an ability to think about thinking). Metacognitive abilities create opportunities for self-awareness and the frequently observed adolescent trait of self-centeredness, which characteristically present as beliefs in specialness, invulnerability, and omnipotence. A belief in specialness may lead some adolescents to a related, but irrational, belief that no one is capable of understanding their uniqueness. This belief may spawn feelings of disconnection with others and psychological isolation. Similarly, a belief in personal invulnerability may lead some adolescents to the perhaps understandable, yet irrational, belief that no harm will come to them when they engage in risk-taking behaviors. In these ways, emergent cognitive abilities have a significant impact on emotional and psychosocial development during adolescence.

Consistent with the path of cognitive development, adolescent psychosocial growth is unique and irregular. Rapid physical and sexual maturation provide opportunities to experiment with newfound abilities in a world of ever-increasing demands. Requisite for understanding one’s place in this new world order is an emergent and consistent search for identity that places demands on newly acquired cognitive abilities to imagine oneself in a host of future possible worlds. Combined with expanding cognitive and psychosocial abilities, emergent self-awareness produces an understanding that life is, by nature, a social experience. A burgeoning libido and budding options for social connectedness create unprecedented opportunities for success in making meaningful relationships as well as for failure in navigating the turbulent waters of relationship formation. Depending on these and other factors such as personal maturity, psychological health, and family/peer support, some adolescents will create and maintain healthy relationships while others will seek to make connections at any cost.

Internet technologies provide adolescents with an enormous array of communication tools for making social connections. Email, listserves, chat rooms, instant messaging tools, social network sites, multi-user domains (MUDs), and massive multiplayer online role-playing games (MMOs or MMORPGs) are but a sample of such tools used by adolescents. To the extent that they are tools, they have no valence in determining the extent to which adolescents communicate effectively or form meaningful relationships. However, these tools offer anonymity and ubiquity for making connections. These are broad technological characteristics that draw the attention of researchers, teachers, and parents who are concerned for the nature and types of connections that adolescents make online. A host of questions remain unanswered (i.e., does the anonymity offered by the Internet permit an individual to disclose his/her true self or present an idealized self?) Additional research is required to identify correlations among specific technological characteristics and relation ship quality.

Evidence is overwhelming that adolescents use Internet communication tools to support existing, offline relationships. Online communication serves to promote stronger ties by providing opportunities for frequent contact among friends without diminishing the frequency of offline contacts. Online communication extends the breadth of contact among existing friends and is perceived to increase relationship intimacy and closeness. The frequency with which teenage friends communicate with each other is consistent with the egocentric adolescent’s sense of self-centeredness. More importantly, such connections may mitigate the negative aspects of being special, replacing a sense of psychological isolation and feeling misunderstood with the company of like companions.

Adolescents who form online relationships perceive them as being close, even romantic, in nature, although rarely do these relationships migrate to offline interactions. These findings should also be interpreted in the context of comparison to offline relationships. When asked to compare the quality of online relationships with face-to-face relationships, adolescents report that online relationships are characterized by weaker bonds. However, the value of these less intimate online connections may be that they provide substance to an otherwise imaginary audience of the adolescent’s world.

Research findings fail to support the popular idea that introverted adolescents use the anonymity provided by the Internet to make friends online. In fact, except for a small subset who deliberately set-out to make friends online, introverted teenagers use the Internet less frequently and self-disclose less online than do their extroverted counterparts. Extroverted teenagers, who are better able to make friends face-to-face are also better at making online connections.

A concern for teenagers who form online relationships, without a balance of intimate offline friendships, is strengthened by findings that teenagers who formed close online relationships were more likely to report high levels of depression, victimization (typically by peers), or other problematic life events. These teenagers were also more likely to report relationship problems with parents. Such adolescents exhibit difficulty in negotiating the challenges of cognitive and psychosocial demands and it is unlikely that making online friends alone will provide enough positive support to overcome these challenges. Continued vigilance is required to determine the conditions that yield more positive than negative outcomes.

It is reasonable to say that the degree to which adolescents are successful in developing meaningful relationships is a function of the extent to which cognitive and psychosocial stages of development have been successfully negotiated. This function incorporates some degree of reciprocity as meaningful relationships can mediate the effects of cognitive egocentricism and psychosocial experimentation. Connecting online strengthens relationships among existing friends; less clear is the degree to which online-only relationships