Myron Orleans. Adolescent Online Social Communication and Behavior: Relationship Formation on the Internet. Hershey, PA: Information Science Reference, 2010.
Fear as a distinctive constructed social phenomenon has recently been the subject of not only of socio-psychological consideration but of public attention (Altheide, 2002; Glassner, 2000; Furedi, 2006; Stearns, 2006). As social structures and technologies have become more complex, offering more alternative sources of communication, fear has been directed toward the very avenues of access, particularly the Internet. Combined with persistent fears regarding youthful experimentation with all sorts of means of interaction, we have a substantial focal point of public concern. This paper addresses certain common perceptions and attributions regarding the presumed damaging effects of Internet communication on the lives of adolescents. Our focus here is on examining the consequences of perceived risk behaviors of adolescents engaged in online environments. The attributions of isolation, contagion and sexual solicitation as possible outcomes of online interaction will be explored.
The emergence of distinctive online cognitive environments for adolescents has posed significant challenges to many parents and adult guardians whose non-digital orientation opens up profound questions of intergenerational distancing, loss of trust, and, mainly, fear of youth’s degradation. Adult anxiety regarding youth social isolation as a result of excessive online activity reflects a linear mode of thought along with a limited realist notion of the meaning of sociality. In previous research, this writer presented qualitative data suggesting that under certain conditions, actual socialization of youth was not negatively impacted by virtual computer activity (Orleans & Laney, 2000). A counter-intuitive finding indicated that lesser parental involvement with online activity was associated with higher levels of pro-social interaction in both online and face-to-face environments. Since this issue has remained a public concern (Gross, 2004; Mazalin & Moore, 2004; Sanders, Field, Diego, & Kaplan, 2000), further review of this issue is most certainly warranted and will presented here.
Further deepening the concerns of parents and professionals have been the features made possible through the advent of Web 2.0. This phenomenon refers to new ways of using the Internet to promote the formation of communities, collaborative environments, networks, file sharing sites, as well as wikis and blogs that have become commonplace in recent years. Myspace, Youtube, Facebook and Twitter are among the more popular social networking sites that are collectively and continually built with substantial involvement of adolescents. The participatory nature of such sites may exacerbate fears of some parents, however carefully these sites may be scrutinized.
Recent research on social networking sites has found, for example, that despite parental concern, teens generally responded “to negative online events” in ways that could be characterized as “healthy” (Rosen & Carrier, 2008). Additionally, authoritative parenting was found to predict the lowest frequency of negative behaviors. Other research suggests that personal disclosures are not as frequent as some parents may assume and that adolescent use of Myspace is most frequently responsible and reasonable (Hinduja & Patchin, 2008). Valkenburg, Jochen and Schouten (2006) found that peer interaction on friendship networking sites increased the range of social relationships with effects on self-esteem related to the quality of feedback received.
Fear of contagion through online interaction expresses the dread that young people will be exposed to and persuaded by negative, corruptive sorts of influences. Fear of exposure to and obsession with inappropriate sexual material and communication, to crude, violent imagery, to recipes for anti-social actions such as homicide or suicide, drug use, etc., to extreme cultic ideologies, to all sorts of commonly despised possibilities, foment in the minds of many parents. Thus, fear of adolescent isolation is contrasted with fears of the very wrong kinds of social influences experienced in online environments (Mitchell, Finkelhor,& Becker-Blease, 2007; Whitlock, 2006). Studies call for parental awareness of the dangers posed to address such issues without excessive hyperbole (Becker, EI-Faddagh, Berson & Berson, 2005; Schmidt, 2004; Bross, 2005; Wolak, Finkelhor, Mitchell, & Ybarra, 2008).
While isolation and contagion fears reflect the duality of adult orientations toward online adolescent interpersonal experiences and subjective orientations, heightened concern regarding sexual solicitation and subsequent abductions of youth reflect fears of potentially devastating actions. Adult solicitation of youth through online communication is commonly presumed to be a reality, a lurking danger, and is viewed with the greatest concern (Wolak et al., 2008). Solicitation and then abduction is presumed to be a reality, with supposed documented cases indicating a potential to occur in the absence of responsible adult supervision. Youth runaways are frequently considered to have been influenced in their conduct by online solicitation, sometimes prepared through contagion. Solicitation may be thought of more as a direct person to person communication act, or more specifically, adult to adolescent process, while contagion is more of a collective process related to virtual assemblages in chatrooms and the like. Research reveals that reports of overall sexual solicitations is declining possibly due to law enforcement efforts as well as educational efforts aimed at white affluent youth while programs to improve awareness among minority youth has lagged (Mitchell et al., 2007).
While any imagined threat may have instances of enactment, the discussion of such possibilities rarely examine how this fear itself may affect attitudes, actions and interactions of youth, their parents, and others. Cautions, admonitions, preventions, and treatments, all play a role in the process of fear induction and propagation, and, in effect, magnify their consequences. This paper explores the role of fears in relation to adult involvement with online adolescents. Some proposals are offered regarding the management of fear through a balanced approach which takes into account actual dangers while reconsidering appropriate and productive adult responses to adolescent online activity.
Foundations of Fear
The simple explanation for fear-mongering regarding youth Internet activity is that such concern sells. Sensationalism garners attention, sells space, markets therapeutic services, promotes advocacy groups and associations, builds demand for reactive software, justifies organizations, and supports political, religious and ideological agendas. Such sites as www.loveourchildrenusa.org/, www.simpletoremember.com/vitals/dangers-of-the-internet.htm, www.protectkids.com/dangers/, www.gov.il/FirstGov/TopNavEng/EngSubjects/SafeSurfingEng/ParentsEng, www.webmd.com/parenting/features/4-dangers-internet, www.iusb.edu/~sbit/pdf/dangerous-internet.pdf, and so forth have fueled the issue.
Perhaps at a somewhat deeper level, fear sustains the adult need to control the range and experiences of the young. This need to control may be rooted in a sense that youth will stray into some unknown sectors of meaning, invent alternative discourses, or engage with significances that are incomprehensible to adults. While the sources may be speculated upon, genuinely felt fear and anxiety seem to frame general adult, and specifically, parental perceptions of the online world-building actions of youth.
Popular and scholarly discussion of children and computers has generally lauded the educational benefits of home computers for children (Bross, 2005; Schall & Skeele, 1995; Williams, 1994). Large and growing proportions of youth in the United States have and will have regular access to a home computer or notebook, text messaging, Blackberry capabilities, and while usage varies, parents have long expected that their children need to use and will use a computer on a regular basis (Green, 1996).
At the same time, however, concern has been expressed regarding the possible isolating effects of computer communication on children (Gross, 2004; Mazalin & Moore, 2004, Sanders et al., 2000). Consideration of the presumed “nonsocial” nature of computers has led some to conclude that regardless of instrumental benefits, excessive preoccupation with computers may pose a danger to adults as well as to children (Kupfer, 1995; Stoeltje, 1996).
Serious concerns have also been raised about the contagion effects of high levels of Internet involvement. Young people may be exposed to all sorts of anti-social recipes for conduct including elaborated means of expressing violence toward others, but more pervasively, self-destructive acts such as purging, binging, mutilation, and ultimately suicide (Winkel, Groen, & Petermann, 2005). Additionally, fears regarding hate sites, sexual perversions, extreme behaviors, high-risk activities, drug use, and much more are thought to be purveyed via the Internet to corrupt youth. Particular types of young adults who exhibit self-harming traits, must be addressed distinctively in relation to online activities as they pose specific risks and vulnerabilities (Mitchell & Ybarra, 2007).
Much attention has been devoted to Internet-mediated sexual solicitation of youth by older predators (Berson & Berson, 2005; Padilla-Walker, 2006). Seduction into aberrant lifestyles and orientations are considered more feasible with the advent of the compelling technologies associated with the Internet. Deception and manipulation can be easily practiced via the Internet, where alternation of self and anonymity are the hallmarks of direct communication.
Responsible parental vigilance and negotiated regulation is promoted as the means through which youth can be regulated in online environments (Livingstone, 2005). Yet, it is inevitable that young people can hide their computer activities from their elders and excessive vigilance further divides generations diminishing trust and autonomy while implicitly emotionalizing leanings toward distanced, suspicion-generating relationships. Thus, excessive parental concern may prove counter-productive under some conditions.
Children’s use of computers firmly affects their personal lives, family relationships and peer adjustment. Since computers constitute a significant and growing proportion of children’s lives (Welch, 1995), it is not surprising that concerns have addressed the possibility that children will experience a diminution of social relationships, be exposed to malevolent interests, and place themselves in jeopardy. Fears have been frequently and even vociferously expressed that children’s physical, personal and social development will be impaired by excessive computer usage (Dorman, 1997; Miller, 1993.)
Fear of the effects of digital technology is not new, nor has it escaped the attention of researchers (Suratt, 2006; Talbott, 1995; Turkle, 1995). Media critics have frequently proclaimed that television, music, video games, as well as computer games, damage children, diminish their social interaction, and place them at greater risk of subjection to anti-social influence (Freeman, 1997; Smith, 1995). Debates rage as to the reality of Internet “addition” (Collins, 2007; Suratt, 2006). Personal computers may have now taken over television’s prominent position as the newest, most feared piece of technology in the home (Coffey & Horst, 1997). The anxiety felt by some adults has not apparently impacted the teenagers themselves who seem to continue to view the Internet favorably (Clemmitt, 2006).
Parental dread of children’s computer misuse is further enhanced by exaggerated media depictions. For example, popular movies, such as far back as “Hackers” (Wickstrom, 1996), and as recently as “Live Free or Die Hard” (Neman, 2007) portrayed adolescents as cyberjunkies who compromise banking procedures, change television programming, twist government policies, foil the bad guys, save the world, but who do not participate in sports and barely associate with anyone outside their computer-related culture including their families. Magazines and newspapers have also contributed to the environment of anxiety with articles such as “Child molesters on the internet,” (Trebilcock, 1997), “Snared by the net,” (Rogers, Sandler, Duffy, Salcines, & Duignan-Cabrera, 1997), “Internet dangers (How to protect our children),” (Rubenstein, 1996), “Are we creating Internet introverts? Culture: Our children need to be in the real world,” (Shulman, 1996), and more recently, “Babes in the Woods” (Flanagan, 2007). An assumption behind these critiques of young people’s computer use is that a limited reservoir of time and energy is available to devote either to social or to non-social technological involvements. Zero sum thinking posits that technological activities necessarily reduce sociation, substitute ersatz experiences that are inherently frustrating because they waste time, energy, and sensibility, misdirect interests, focus on falsehoods instead of substance and substitute unrealities for social life and physical activity. This approach fears the loss of the self and the social to the technology (Kupfer, 1995; Stoeltje, 1996).
Alternative conceptualizations suggest that computers may actually promote certain kinds of sociations and advance pro-social and educational orientations (Aslanidou, and Menexes, 2008); Wellman, Salaff, & Dimitrova, 1996). Technology, in this view, may create occasions for social interaction and serve as topics of discourse. Rather than posit computer technology and social interaction as mutually exclusive options, this approach poses the possibility of reciprocal and reflexive interplay between the two phenomena (Leeds-Hurwitz, 1995; Pearce, 1994). Computer use may be thus thought of as a possible foundation for social interaction as well as its product. Explorations of virtual worlds convey lessons for life and promote learning of variable sorts. Youth gain sophistication, it is argued, by trial and error in the online environment. They experience autonomy and a form of self-responsibility through their navigations. Most significantly, it has been suggested that excessive fear of the Internet may cancel some of the substantial benefits offered (Tynes, 2007).
Earlier research reported a set of scenarios describing adolescent computer users under a variety of conditions that resulted in different kinds of youthful associations (Orleans & Laney, 2000). Young computer users were intensively observed in the naturalistic settings of their home environments to grasp the spontaneously expressed social meanings of their computing behavior. A phenomenological approach (Orleans, 1991) was used to describe and analyze the patterned computer-related actions and interactional world of the subjects. This kind of data did not permit empirical generalizations as to the proportion of children whose social life is enhanced vs. the proportion whose social life is diminished by computer use. Rather this qualitative data permitted the detailed description of the lived experience of the subjects under varying conditions. These conditions included parental involvement, orientations to computers, gender, degree of peer integration, computer sophistication as well as other variables.
Parents were likely to be important insofar as they configure their child’s computer and establish parameters for use. Computational power and software capabilities were most frequently parental prerogatives related to their financial situation and to their purposes in providing the child with computer access. It was considered that a curvilinear relationship in which extremely low and high levels of parental involvement either precluded adolescent sociation or rendered it un-likely. Moderate amounts of parental consultation along with encouragement toward autonomy were predicted as the greatest likelihood of sociation connected with computer use.
A different orientation to computer use was hypothesized as likely to be associated with the quality and frequency of social interaction of early adolescents. Thus, some young adolescents were thought to see their computers as tools of personal expression and self-empowerment (Orleans & Walters, 1996). It was thought that they use the computer to expand interests, obtain information, improve academic performance, and to demonstrate mastery of a complex technology before family and peers. It was conjectured that the functional use of the child’s personal computer in this scenario might impel him or her to try new computer activities, learn programming, resolve problems, and continuously upgrade capabilities. While ego enhancement might have driven some to do it all on their own, it was thought more likely that regular consultations with experienced peers would help early adolescent computer users become aware of new software, programming approaches, and trouble-shooting techniques. Thus, it was suggested that sociation might be promoted to the extent that the desire to perfect one’s personal computer motivated the user to seek sophisticated peer assistance.
Children likely spend a great deal of time directly playing games against their computer and apparently isolating themselves (Chiou, 2008). But gamers, especially adolescents, often get together to play computer games (Barnett, Vitaglione, Harper, & Quackenbush, 1997; Buchman & Funk, 1996; Funk & Buchman, 1996: Olson, Kutner,& Warner, 2008). Increasingly, gamers were and are networked either in actual networks or via digital links. Online services are offering gamers opportunities to play via their proprietary services or at Internet sites. Game installations, including consultations providing technical support, sharing, shortcuts, codes, achievements and ways of improving scores, may promote sociation. Thus, to the extent that gaming implicates others, the surround of game playing poses a possibility of social interaction.
While the online world may appear to some as a substitute for interpersonal communication, a virtual sociality that provides only a false sense of connection, it affords many opportunities for children to genuinely interact. Young adolescents may discuss the benefits of e-mailing, blogging, networking, chatting, Web surfing, and the like. They can convince their own and peer’s parents to allow online access, help each other to get online, share favorite sites, compare different plugins, discuss technical matters, and offer support for each other’s online ventures. They may gather in groups to share online access and certainly do so through social networking sites. Additionally, some children may find it more fun to go online together rather than individually and do both alternatively. Thus, virtual social worlds and actual sociality can reciprocally co-exist even though time spent on the Internet may displace social activities (Nie, Hillygus & Erbring, 2002).
Researchers studying the impact of computer use on socialization initially found that online activity diminished the quantity of offline interaction (Kraut, Patterson, Lundmark, Kiesler, Mukopadhyay, & Scherlis, 1998). Subsequent research found that the negative effects on offline sociality declined with time but suggested that multiple if weaker online ties replaced stronger offline connections (Kraut, Kiesler, Boneva, Cummings, Helgeson & Crawford, 2002). The impact of computer usage on family boundaries was measured by Mesch (2006) who found that family cohesion was negatively associated when time on the Internet was spent for non-knowledge gathering social purposes but was enhanced in the use of the Internet for learning. Further, it was suggested that family-based Internet activities could enhance family cohesion when activities were focused on collective processes. Overall, it may reasonably be concluded that moderate, balanced use of the Internet by adolescents does not severely negatively affect offline social interaction.
The characteristics of early adolescent gender-based groups impact sociation experiences (Lever, 1978; Fine, 1988). Research on male groups suggests that activities and tasks constitute the prime focus of interactions. Communication regarding computers would seem to meet the standards exemplified in male groupings. There may well be an affinity between male sociation patterns and in teraction concerning computers (D’Amico, Baron, & Sissons, 1995; Kinnear, 1995; Whitley, 1997). Since female play groups have been found to be less complex and more oriented toward socializing itself rather than toward activities or tasks (Lever, 1978), it may be somewhat less likely for female adolescents to use computer issues as a resource for sociation. However, the advent of Facebook, YouTube, blogging, etc., likely diminishes any gender differences. However, females report higher rates of online sexual solicitation (Mitchell, Wolak, & Finkelhor, 2008). Chatroom users were more likely to be persons categorized as “troubled” and were more vulnerable than others, but this was not associated with encountering problems online (Beebe, Asche, Harrison, & Quinlan, 2004). In any case, computer involvement might prove less likely to produce isolation among young females because of their direct orientation toward sociability. Thus, gender may impact computer-related sociation of early adolescents in four ways: 1) isolate males who are not involved in computer support social groupings; 2) integrate males who use computer-related communications as grounds for sociation; 3) somewhat reduce female sociation by promoting individual computer activities; 4) some what promote female sociation if they seek social support for their computer activities.
Although the previous study (Orleans & Laney, 2000) had hypothesized that adolescent computer users would require some parental assistance, the computer competence of all but the youngest users tended to obviate the need for intrusive involvement. Indeed, the activation of the subjects’ social networks depended upon the gaps produced by their parents’ relative disinclination to impose their frames upon the computer actions of their children. Specifically, it was determined that once adults had set up the computer basics and receded, even non-sophisticated children could move to a level of competence using their siblings and peers as primary resources.
In most instances observed, the parameters for computer use set by the parents encouraged family interaction, but also allowed for some degree of isolation. However, parental enmeshment in childhood and early adolescent computer use tended to preclude the computer serving as a resource in developing either a stronger family bond or friendship network. Thus, a fearful, authoritarian parent would be more likely to dissuade the child from engaging with the computer and peers productively.
Once children established themselves as being fully in charge of their computing, they were able to master the elements for their own purposes, principally online access, and conducted their activities with apparent self-responsibility. Groups of friends were observed together getting online to explore resources and gain the experiences they wanted in the absence of adults, self-regulating, collectively monitoring and alerting each other to possible problems.
In these limited instances of parental involvement in their children’s computer use, it became apparent that the greater the autonomy the child was given, the more pro-social was his or her experience. Indeed, parental guidance rooted in their fear concerns seemed to dampen children’s sociation with peers. Given leeway, the young computer users seemed to be stimulated to seek support from and involvement with their peers and avoided the feared pitfalls.
The previous research (Orleans & Laney, 2000) found that group solidarity and boundary definitions were established through the use of computer embedded language among peers in the absence of adults. Terms brought into the conversation from computer experience served to deepen the level of meaning and served to protect the subjects from predatory practice.
The research found that the reflexive, self-constituting process of sociation while computing allowed subjects to develop a protective sophistication. The subjects created a micro-social world which was itself a product of their computer activities and provided the context within which these computer activities occurred. Thus, the social dimension of computing was found to be inextricably bound to the computing acts themselves tying the youngsters into a defensive collectivity that could effectively ward off external threats. Interestingly, it was additionally found that successfully conducted adolescent computer activity led to increased self-confidence, character development, family discussion, and solidification of parent-child relationships in the absence of the fear orientation.
As for frequently dreaded computer games (Olson et al., 2008), the research found that gaming served not only as a focus of social activity, but as a topic of discourse and as a frame through which to experience ordinary communication. Gaming formed the backdrop for their talk while the subjective experience of it constituted the theme of the conversation. They engaged in heated and fruitful discourse, experiencing active communication that may have significant socialization benefit for all involved.
Young adolescents played computer games and experience social relationships under diverse social conditions. The research demonstrated a range of consequences of game playing including topical talk, framing, mediating, perspective interchange, role sharing, self-organization, reconstructed logics, strategic discourse, impression management and the like. When the subjects’ mundane computer activities were viewed as sophisticated collective accomplishments, the socialization gain derived from these activities can be substantial and obviated feared consequences of isolation and compulsive participation. A rewards strategy using the notion that less rewards produces more attitude change has been proposed to address online compulsive gaming participation, i.e., gaming addiction, that holds great promise (Chiou, 2008). In experimental research, gamers were given lower levels of rewards under the condition of the perception of personal freedom of choice producing attitude change and disengagement from online gaming. It is not unreasonable to suggest that focusing on the losses incurred in terms of social isolation effects experienced through gaming addiction might be used as an effective intervention tool to promote gaming disengagement.
A huge proportion of male computer activity was spent online. This time was by no means socially isolated time. Online communication was usually not a substitute for interpersonal communication, rather both often occurred simultaneously. Perhaps male gaming pursuits would not gain the endorsement of adults, but the proficiency with which boys create communities of interests suggests that collaborative online activities emerge readily among male adolescents (Kutner, Olson, Warner, & Hertzog, 2008).
Even when not using a computer for online activities, adolescents were observed in the earlier study (Orleans & Laney, 2000) to be using online access as a topic of conversation. They demonstrated the fluidity of youthful activities indicating the inseparability of online communication and face-to-face communication. Instead of isolating youth rendering them more vulnerable to predatory practice, it was found that virtual and real communications reflexively construct each other. Thus, adolescents bring their everyday real world experience to bear upon their online virtual communication providing a kind of protective shield. They reflexively integrate their online life into their ordinary talk spontaneously regulating online participation.
Until recently, far more of the research in this area has focused on male rather than on female adolescent computer use. Previous research (Orleans & Laney, 2000) showed that while females were comfortable with computers, it was comparatively rare to find them sharing computer interests and activities. Most of the female subjects performed their computer actions alone and computers did not discernibly enter into their conversations. When communicating in relation to computers, females focused on the substance rather than on the technology which permitted broad exploration of different ways of relating.
Another gender differential in computer use that was observed was that girls rarely played music or had the television turned on while on the computer. The girls also used their computers more for homework than did the boys, who were more likely to play computer games. With exceptions, the girls were more likely to be serious about using the computer. They were more focused on using the computer for particular purposes and their demeanor while using was more somber than the boys. However comfortable the girls appeared with the computer, it occupied a marginal position in their world, rarely substituting for social contact but sometimes provoking sociation. The girls, however, did not seem to legitimate computer use as a social tool.
Research has shown that girls who have more conflicted relationships with parents and were more highly troubled were more likely to form closer online relationships than were other girls (Wolak, Mitchell & Finkhor, 2003). While all youth with poor parental communication and troubled relationships are more likely to be at-risk online than less troubled peers, it can be postulated that Internet usage might make some girls even more vulnerable than boys to contagion on such matters as suicide, eating disorders, sexual promiscuity, and crime since online relationship-formation may have greater personal significance in the absence of supportive familial environments.
For most of the girls who were observed in the previous study, substituting virtual for actual relationships would contradict their taken-for-granted way of doing their normal lives (Berger and Luckmann, 1966). That is, for them the ordinary social world was most salient. The computer may have been viewed as a useful tool, a transitional substitute for social bonding, but not as the paramount reality taking precedence over other aspects of one’s social life (Furger, 1998). Since girl culture emphasized direct interpersonal contact and conversation regarding purely human phenomena, engagement with the computer as a prime focus of communication was not performable (D’Amico et al, 1995; Kinnear, 1995; Whitley, 1997). Girls were more likely to do their computer work without compromising their sociality. The research did not show substantial diminution of social relations among active, apparently non-troubled computer-using females.
Popular and scholarly discussion of sexually-oriented material and seductive possibilities of Internet sites have spurred a great deal of concern, particularly focused on young females (Berson & Berson, 2005; Padilla-Walker, 2006). While some type of parental response is warranted, excessive parental focus following an authoritarian pattern could be counter-productive by unintentionally provoking curiosity and even exploration. The risk factor, although present, is of such a statistically insignificant likelihood, that in the absence of suspicious actions many perceived threats may be best left to general discussion rather than lead to intense concern. Supportive conversation and authoritative guidance by parents may be a more productive approach to effective parenting.
Rosen and Carrier (2008) suggest that parental fears of online threats were not matched either by the actual prevalence found in their research or by parental actions with regard to limit setting and monitoring practices. They suggest that open negotiation with adolescents to establish consensual parameters to online activity would have the most positive results. Eastin. Greenberg and Hofschire (2006) propose that evaluative and factual discussions of online communication are necessary to mediate Internet use. Further, Lee and Chae (2007) in their study of Korean families found that parental suggestions of Internet sites and co-use predicted higher levels of children’s online education activity. On the other hand, they found that restrictive approaches did not affect children’s Internet use.
Of relatively common interest among young females is celebrity idolization using the Internet and other means of inquiry (Engel & Kasser, 2005). Google searches for celebrities are a major Internet activity extending and deepening this preoccupation. While celebrity stalking is frequently discussed, it is rarely enacted and would appear to not be an issue of note for the vast majority of young females. Idolization is more of a para-social process without substantial negative consequence that most frequently plays a role in adolescent female socialization.
Systematic research has failed to support the publicity devoted to online predators who seduce naïve children using deceit and coercion (Wolak et al., 2008). However, Internet sex crime does occur more frequently as a matter of statutory rape where young adult offenders encounter and entice underage adolescents into relationships. It is indeed misleading to forewarn adolescents about the adult predator while ignoring this more typical pattern of seduction. The actual predators appear more acceptable to the young adolescent and engage with them in ways that are more apparently acceptable. Parents are urged to take into account these realities when addressing the romantic, sexual interests of their adolescents. The problems and hazards of engaging in relationships with adults who are only a few older should be explained while avoiding distorted stereotypes. Adolescents with higher risk factors, particularly victims of childhood sexual abuse are particularly vulnerable, likely requiring professional involvement. Factors predicting online victimization are explored more fully in Chapter 13 of this book.
Since this research did not find that computer use resulted in individual isolation and vulnerability, and in the absence of research that it does, it is recommended that the media abstain from emphasizing its dangers and threats to the common sensibility. Certainly, instilling fear and moral panic regarding young people’s computer use is more likely to be profitable than would normalizing normalizing discourse. However, to pathologize computer use without adequate justification does a serious disservice to our children and our future (Bross, 2005; Tynes, 2007). More directly, while parental anxieties cannot be fully alleviated by research and rational consideration, the focus of attention might be more effectively directed toward the particular areas of sensitivity to avoid diffusing the entire issue.
Adult anxiety regarding the damaging effects of online activity of adolescents suggested that the interactional networks that structure adolescent computer experience constrained rather than expanded risk-taking actions of adolescents. Since groups serve as a kind of protective shield for boys, actions to promote collectivized computer activities for girls may be warranted to provide some support.
A key recommendation derived from this study is to encourage the trend among female adolescents to further integrate actual and virtual interactions that support and expand interpersonal relations. While the girl-culture emphasis on the human dimension in social interaction is critically important, it might well include the use of computers and the cyber world as a topic of conversation and as a focus of activity. This would seem beneficial in terms of information development and educational activities, but also in terms of networking and collaborating. As adolescent females gain familiarity with the underlying technology they will be better prepared to anticipate and to innovate new designs and applications advancing their personal and, ultimately, their professional capabilities in the digital world.
How to engineer this is, of course, problematic, but games and computer activities that encourage social interaction will likely entice girls’ participation (Corston and Colman 1996; Furger, 1998; Thomas, 1996; Vail, 1997). Social networking sites are definitely enticing greater female adolescent involvement than earlier forums for interaction. These sites such as Facebook and MySpace are expanding scope and options rapidly frequently drawing parents and other responsible adults into these activities on an online interactive basis. Further technological developments making greater graphic and creative participation available will enhance the quality of female integration of actual and virtual interactions.
Just as girls’ athletic programs have developed substantially, perhaps in spite of culturally-rooted prejudices, and as girls are preparing to enter into many nonconventional occupations with many worthy adult female role models available, it is ever more apparent that adolescent females are increasingly motivated to approach computing as an ordinary, pleasant and productive feature of their social lives. As female online sociation has become commonplace, a major benefit of such female peer social networks and sites would possibly be to promote resistance to online contagions and solicitations while preparing for future technology-based endeavors.
Certainly, parents need to be aware of their children’s computer activities. They need to be mindful, however, that their own excessive involvement may rob the children of their chance for discovery and peer socialization. Parents would be well advised to allow their children the opportunity to enjoy the computer without dread of its putative dangers while engaged in ongoing realistic discourses to mediate Internet experience. Children with adequate values socialization, normal peer relations and social support networks are unlikely to be vulnerable targets. Reasonable caveats and age appropriate limits established through open and reasonable discussion, along with wise selection of software, is likely to provide sufficient safeguards (Livingstone, 2007; Mitchell, Finklhor, & Wolak, 2005). While overall sexual solicitations seem to be declining, more serious and aggressive solicitations remain an issue requiring attention (Mitchell, Finkelhor, & Wolak, 2007). Programmatic approaches to improve regulatory capabilities of minority parents are needed. Parents ought to be reassured that the computer with Internet connection is essentially a benign, productive device, which certainly can be misused, but is most likely to prove of significant benefit. Indeed, since computer and other informational technologies can promote family interaction, it is advised that families might focus more of their activities around computing and online activity (Kraut et al., 1996; Sun, 1995).
Similarly, the Internet should be best understood in terms of a virtual social world intersecting infinitely with actual social worlds. Our children are establishing their presence and communicating beyond their immediate social circles. They are discovering all sorts of representations of worlds within and beyond their familiarity, and hopefully, producing their own representations. Collective efforts of adolescents to participate on the Internet would seem to easily flow from their involvement. Adolescents are increasing self-aware of potential risks and take actions to protect themselves by limiting disclosures and other such deflecting strategies (Youn, 2005). Sharing and communicating interpersonally about the Internet, in general, is strongly advised, even if some pursuits may not be amenable to conventional tastes. In any case, the sparse verifiable examples of children lured away from home by online predators or atypical stories of children losing their souls to “cyberaddiction” should not dissuade parents and adults from supporting moderate and appropriate use of the Internet (Collins, 2007; Orleans, 1997; Suratt, 2006; Young, 1996).
Research has also shown that Internet use provides greater benefit for hearing-impaired adolescents (Barak & Sadovsky, 2008). Internet activity served to empower these youth and provided means for expanding range and intensity of social involvement. Such results suggest that the positive benefits far outweigh dangers for even the most potentially vulnerable young people. They used communication tools to overcome tendencies toward isolation achieving levels of well-being commensurate with non-impaired adolescents.
In sum, recommendations are offered which enhance awareness of the dimensions of online activity of youth that require attention. Computers and online access is deeply integrated into all aspects of contemporary life. Dystopic visions of a fragmented social world resulting from computerization have not materialized demonstrating the society’s capacity to adapt. A more embracing research-based approach, starting with children, will facilitate the implementation of more effective resolutions of the social challenges posed by technological advances.