Gustavo S Mesch. Adolescent Online Social Communication and Behavior: Relationship Formation on the Internet. Hershey, PA: Information Science Reference, 2010.
The incorporation of social software into everyday life is redefining the social networks of youth. Fast and interactive online communication supports the formation, maintenance and expansion of social networks. As information and communication technologies are developing a rapidly advancing history of technological innovations, the past, present and future of youth associations and communication are indistinguishable from the various technologies that were and are available. From electronic mail and newsgroups, from open forums to open chat rooms, from Instant Messenger to social networking sites, the prevailing technologies partially define the structure and content of social communication and association. Furthermore, young people’s communication environment has become increasingly complex, as the different technologies listed above are used simultaneously.
The purpose of this chapter is to investigate the motivations for the use of each technology and the impact of this use on the social circle of adolescents. In particular the analysis will address a number of issues. First, whether different motivations shape the use of email, chat rooms, instant messenger and social networking sites. Second, the effect of the use of each technology on the size and quality of social ties that are maintained or created. Third, the effect of media choices on adolescents’ access to social support, sociability and social capital
Our understanding of teens’ use of social media is dominated by several tensions that will be addressed in this chapter. One tension concerns the impact of social media on young persons’ social circles and the extent that social media isolate teens from their friends or liberate them from the constraints of place and social similarity. A second tension refers to the extent that the effect of social media diversifies social networks or expands social bonding with known individuals. The third tension is the extent that social media replace strong ties by weak ties. The main argument of the chapter is that our understanding of the impacts of social media will benefit from a grasp of the specific characteristics of each social software and the motivations for its use. Thus, social media effects are dependent on both the teen motivations and the tool that is used.
Young People’s Communication Environment
In the last 10 years the communication environment of youth has changed as more and more teens have gained access to computer-mediated communication and cellular phones. A recent study in the USA found that 63 percent of all teens avail of cell phones, and access to the Internet is almost universal. Most of the use is for social purposes, as 93 percent send and receive emails, 68 percent send and receive instant messages, 55 percent have a profile in a social networking site, 28 percent have created or work in an online journal (blog) and 18 percent visit chat rooms (Lenhart & Madden, 2007). In Canada, a recent study shows that 77 percent send and receive instant messages, 74 percent send and receive electronic mail, 24 percent visit chat rooms and 19 percent have created or work in an online journal (Media Awareness Group, 2005). In Europe figures vary according to country, but the trend in the use of social applications is similar. For example in the UK 81 percent send and received email, 78 percent send and receive instant messages and 20 percent participate in chat rooms. In Italy the percentages are lower: as 59 percent of the youth send and receive email, 49 percent send and receive instant messages and 33 percent participate in chat rooms (MediAppro, 2005). The distinguishing characteristic of these data is that the use of the different applications varies, and as the communication partners differ according to the application being used, variation in the outcomes can be expected.
Online communication, then, is frequent among youth in the Western world. But unlike the early years of online communication, the existence of different applications now calls for a reevaluation of the unique affordances of each one and the theoretical frameworks that are relevant to the understanding of online communication and relationship formation and maintenance in adolescence. Before we turn to this topic the importance of the latter subject will be addressed.
Youth and Friendship Formation and Development
Adolescence is an important developmental stage, during which social relationships outside the family expand; their quality has been linked to various behavioral outcomes (Giordano, 2003). Social interaction with peers provides a forum for learning and refining socio-emotional skills needed for enduring relationships. Through interactions with peers, adolescents learn how to cooperate, to take different perspectives, and to satisfy growing needs for intimacy (Rubin, Bukowski & Parker, 1998; Crosnoe, 2000). Youth who report having friends are more confident, more altruistic, and less aggressive, and demonstrate greater school involvement and work orientation. For adolescents, personal relationships are a type of social support. Those with more supportive friendships were shown to have higher self-esteem, to suffer depression or other emotional disorders less often, and to be better adjusted to school than youth with less supportive friendships (Hartup, 1996; Collins & Larsen, 1999; Beraman & Moody, 2003).
The literature on personal relations has long been concerned with the quality of the ties that bind individuals. One way to measure this quality is by the strength of these ties (Marsden & Campbell, 1984). A tie’s strength is usually assessed by a combination of factors such as perceived closeness, intimacy and trust. Weaker ties are evinced in more casual relationships and in sparser exchanges; they typify relationships of those who enjoy fewer kinds of support. Strong ties exist in relationships on a high level of intimacy, involving more self-disclosure, shared activities, emotional as well as instrumental exchanges, and long-term interaction (Marsden & Campbell, 1984; Haythornthwaite, 2002).
Online Relationship Formation and Maintenance
Studies on the quality of online relationships are divided in their conclusions regarding the type and qualities of social ties that are created and maintained through the Internet (Cummings, Buttler & Kraut, 2002; Mesch & Talmud, 2006). I use the term affordance to describe the potential for action, the perceived capacity of individuals to create and maintain different kinds of relationships. Some internet supported social applications are less used and some more, certain applications afford the creation of new social ties, based on shared interests and motives, others maintain, support and expand existing social ties.
Early conceptualizations, assuming the technological determinism of the Internet, described the weakness of electronic media in supporting social ties (McKenna, et al, 2002). The term, technological determinism, is used to refer to the common assumption that new technologies and new media channels of communication shape and constrain the content and type of messages that are exchanged. The “reduced social cues perspective” is based on the observation that computer-mediated communication (CMC) allows the exchange of fewer cues than face-to-face environments and suggests that CMC is less appropriate for the support of emotional exchanges or the conveyance of complex information and a sense of social presence. This early perspective that technology is the sole determinant of the nature of social ties is quite skeptical of the ability of CMC to support strong ties. Moreover, precisely because CMC provides access to a wider audience of individuals who may share interests and hobbies, it has been suggested that the reduced social cues environment on which CMC is based is more suited to supporting weak ties by reducing the risks associated with contacting unknown others (Sproull & Kiesler, 1986).
Social constructivists, by contrast, argue that some features of online communication, such as anonymity, isolation, lack of “gating features”, and ease of finding others with the same interests, make it easier for individuals to form strong ties (McKenna et al., 2002). The formation of close interpersonal relationships requires the establishment of trust, that is, a sense that intimate information disclosed in interpersonal exchanges is not widely disseminated and is not used to ridicule friends. The relative anonymity of the Internet reduces the risk of such disclosure, especially intimate information, because such intimate information can be shared without fear of embarrassment resulting from disclosing intimate information to members of the close-knit, often transient, face-to-face social circle (McKenna et. al, 2002).
Consistent with this argument, some studies have shown that people often disclose intimate information about themselves online (McKenna et al., 2002; Joinson, 2001). The high levels of self-disclosure in CMC interactions have proved to be related to anonymity (Joinson, 2001). Individuals who disclosed personal and intimate information over the Internet reported greater closeness to their online friends (McKenna et al., 2002).
Empirical evidence for these perspectives is mixed. A few studies report that the quality of online social interactions and relationships is lower than that of face-to-face interactions. In other words, off-line friends are perceived as closer because the frequency of communication with face-to-face friends is higher than with online friends (Mesch & Talmud, 2006).
The mixed results might be the result of a lack of distinction of the different types of communication technologies and the user’s motivation for its use. The perspectives of reduced social cues and of social constructivism were both developed at a time when online communication was mainly through electronic mail, forums and chat rooms. Also, a small percentage of the young population had access to the Internet so the most common relationship formation was with strangers.
In the existing youth communication ecology, adolescents’ communicate with each other through chat rooms, instant messenger, email and social networking sites. In such an environment the technological affordances of each technology and its differential use have to be clarified. Different motivations probably lead to the use of different channels and to different social outcomes. Accordingly, the observed mixed results might be the result of confounding the motivation for, with the social outcomes of, the use of different technologies. In the following pages we elaborate the affordances of a number of technologies and review knowledge on the motivation for their use and the results in terms of sociability.
Forums and Chat Rooms
Forums and chat rooms are spaces of interaction in which users maintain their anonymity by using nicknames and interact with others who might not be known, and may reside in a different city, state or country. Individuals join forums and chat discussions according to the topic around which the platform is defined. The defining characteristics of the developing social interaction are the existence of this common topic and similarity in social status (age group, marital status) or location (city or state). As the context of the interaction is based on mutual emotional or intellectual interests, much of the interaction is with unknown individuals who share a concern, hobbies, or other interests.
When presenting the results of surveys in various countries at the beginning of the chapter, it was shown that the percentage of youth who participate in chat rooms and forums is lower than that of youth who communicate through e-mail, Instant Messenger and social networking sites. Thus, motivations for the use of different platforms most probably differ among adolescents. Some have suggested that participation in this type of communication is more likely among youngsters who are introvert and shy (Amichai-Hamburger & Ben Artzi, 2003). By the social constructivist approach, some characteristics of online communication in these channels might facilitate relationship formation for these individuals. By the stimulation hypothesis, the relative anonymity, lack of gating features for relationship formation, and shared specialized interests are conducive to the development of closeness, intimacy and the disclosure of the inner self to others faster than in face-to-face relationships (Valkenburg & Jochen, 2007). This effect is more likely to be found for individuals who are introvert, shy and lack social support in their peer group (McKenna et al., 2002). According to the stimulation hypothesis, online communication in forums and chat rooms will probably lead to an increase of the size of an adolescent’s social network.
From a sociological viewpoint, Mesch (2007) has argued that an important motivation for participation in online communities (forums and chat rooms) is social diversification. Societies are characterized by varying levels of social segregation. In societies that reward individuals differentially according to income, prestige, ethnicity and power, stratification systems result in a differential ability of individuals to gain access to jobs and residential locations. As a result, individual social associations tend to be with individuals of similar social characteristics such as age, gender, marital status, ethnicity, religion, and nationality. Studies on the formation, development, maintenance, and dissolution of close social relationships have emphasized the importance of network homophily (McPherson, Smith-Lovin & Cook, 2002). Social similarity in the social network is the result of the opportunity structure for interaction that emerges from the social structuring of activities in society. Feld (1981) used the concept of foci of activity, defining them as “social, psychological, legal or physical objects around which joint activities are organized.” Whether they are formal (school) or informal (regular hangouts), large (neighborhood) or small (household), foci of activity systematically constrain choices of friends. From this perspective, association with others is the result of a two-step process: foci of activity place individuals in proximity (for example, they provide opportunities for frequent meetings), which causes individuals to reveal themselves to each other. Specifically, people tend to choose their friends from the set of people available through these foci.
The Internet as a focus of activity becomes an institutional arrangement that brings individuals together in repeated interactions around the focal activities. In this sense, as many societies are ethnically and racially segregated, chat rooms and forums provide a space of interaction in which teens are exposed to others of different ethnic origin and can discuss different family practices and different perspectives on history, and can interact with others based on common interests and topics without the barrier that race and ethnicity imposes in everyday life (Tynes, 2007). A study that compared racial and ethnically related comments and stereotypes in two youth chat rooms found reference to these primordial categories in the discussions, but the number of racial remarks online seemed lower than in everyday life. Furthermore, a more positive approach and openness to members of other ethnic groups was found in chat rooms in which the discussion was moderated (Subrahmanyan & Greenfield, 2008). These studies indicate support for the diversification perspective, and for the view that chat rooms and forums organized around specific topics and interests tend to support the development of friendship across ethnic and racial lines; this is an important development in highly residentially segregated societies.
As the diversification perspective assumes exposure to members of other groups is conducive to a reduction in network homophilly. A study on the outgroup orientation of different ethnic groups in chat rooms found that the more opportunities European Americans had to interact with different ethnic groups, the more open they became over time to the diverse groups. Furthermore, an increase in the number of levels of contact proved associated with building cross-race friendships online. These findings imply that social interaction in chat rooms may increase levels of intergroup interaction and reduce network homophilly (Tynes Giang & Thompson, 2005). In another study in Israel, adolescents’ participating in online chat rooms and forums were compared with the ones that did not have access to the Internet. The results show that online youth report networks that are more heterogeneous in terms of gender and age than the ones that have not access online (Mesch & Talmud, 2007).
Consequently, an important motivation for individuals to form online relationships is to diversify their social network and identify other individuals who share their interests, concerns, or problems, but who are not part of their social circle. Online social formation is thus not a general need, as not all individuals are involved in this activity; nor is it only the result of insufficient relationships with family or friends but also the need to find other individuals with similar interests, not available in the social network because of its deterministic similarity. Diversification of social ties, rather than a need for company and lack of social skills motivates online relationship formation.
Another important motivation for participation in online communities (such as forums and chat rooms) is identity exploration. The relative anonymity in virtual spaces allows youth to engage in experimentation in their self presentation, that is, individual attempts to convey information on the image of the self and its identities to others. Studies on youth have presented evidence on this use as almost a quarter of adolescents who used chat rooms or email reported that they presented themselves differently from what they were in real life. A recent study found that 50 percent of the young participants stated that they had engaged in Internet-based identity experiments. The foremost motive for these experiments was to investigate how others reacted, to overcome shyness, and to facilitate relationship formation. Age, gender and introversion were significant predictors of frequency of identity exploration. Younger adolescents experimented more often than older ones. Girls engaged in identity self exploration (how others react) and boys were more concerned to overcome shyness. Introverts were more likely to engage in identity experiments than extraverts (Valkenburg, Shouteen & Peter, 2005).
Participation in chat rooms and forums is often motivated by the need for specific and round-the-clock social support. Online support groups differ in the degree of involvement of professionals. Some have a professional moderator, others lack any moderator. But the common characteristics are that members are youth with a shared condition such as hearing impairment, diabetes, recovery from cancer, sexual abuse, or pregnancy, who assemble to cope with their condition through sharing knowledge and providing mutual support (Mesch, 2006).
This type of communities attracts interest mainly because social support is deemed to require the exchange of verbal and non-verbal messages conveying emotion, information, and advice on reducing uncertainty or stress associated with the condition. Social support is exchanged through computer-mediated communication in relatively large networks of individuals who do not know each other and do not communicate face to face. Also, non-geographic computer-mediated social support communities develop among strangers whose primary connection is sharing a concern over a source of personal discomfort. Social support online is available day and night. As the Internet is a global communication technology the likelihood of finding social support when needed, at any time of the day, is high. An important characteristic of online social support communities is that a very narrow and specific topic is defined, and this attracts individuals who when joining tend to identity themselves as having the particular problem or concern.
An obvious advantage for online social support is its avoidance of the embarrassment that ordinarily follows the voicing of personal and intimate problems in face-to-face relations. Online social support also facilitates interaction management, namely taking time to elaborate and write thoughts online (Walther & Boyd, 2002). These three characteristics, shared identity, anonymity, and interaction management, provide an ideal context for social support (Turner, Grube & Myers, 2001; Walther & Boyd, 2002).
A young person might be motivated to an online social support group because he or she from an embarrassing or socially stig-suffers matized condition. Because of their anxiety and uncertainties, individuals are impelled by the force of social comparison to seek out others with the same condition. But they prefer to do so online by virtue of the anonymity provided by participation in Internet groups (Bargh & McKenna, 2004). As to the advantages of participation in online social support communities, McKay, Glasgow, Feil et al. (2002) found that social support by this means in a group of patients with diabetes led to improvements in dietary control similar to those experienced by members of conventional social support groups.
Others have argued that the motivation for participation in virtual social support communities is the lack of real-world social support. According to this view, in face-to-face communities social support is often hard to come by, particularly when the concern or personal condition is relatively uncommon and culturally devalued (Cummings, Sproull, & Kiessler, 2002). Furthermore, social support is often sought from others with the same condition and who have experienced the difficulties associated with changes in daily life (Loader, Muncer, Burrows, Pleace & Nettleton, 2002; Preece & Ghozati, 2001). For some teens online social support is important as they can discuss personal problems. Peer advice and support help teens navigate romantic relationships and sexual health issues; these are the most frequent topics of conversation in teen chat rooms and forums (Tynes, 2007; Suzuki & Calzo, 2004).
In sum, regarding the tensions described at the beginning of the chapter the studies reviewed on forums and chat rooms carry several implications for adolescents’ social life. The use of these communication channels seems to have an effect on the size and composition of social ties. On the one hand, participation in forums and chat rooms enlarges the social network, providing access to a significant, large number of new potential social ties that can provide diverse resources, from emotional support to access to information and exposure to others of a different background. Participation in these online communities provides opportunities for the practice of social skills and identity experimentation, and in the long term furnishes opportunities for network diversification. On the other hand, online social participation has some costs, at least in the short term. It comes at the price of a decrease in intensity of communication, in perceived closeness and in intimacy with the face-to-face peer group. The time invested in the formation of online ties is at the expense of involvement with existing friends and peer group. So the end result, for this type of communication, is a trade of strong ties for weak ties. But this seems to be a short-term effect: as time goes by, online ties have the potential to become close ties providing social support and companionship and moving from online to face-to-face communication (Mesch & Talmud, 2006).
From Diversification to Bonding: Instant Messaging and Social Networking
Instant messaging and social networking sites differ from other online communication channels in a variety of characteristics. The adoption of the technology is social, as it results from a group of friends settling on a particular IM or social networking system. IM is adopted because of peer pressure that helps to create a critical mass of users in a social group. Today, for adolescents to be part of a peer group they must engage in perpetual communication online after school hours. Those who do not, cannot be part of the peer group. Not being online or not having an IM user name means exclusion from most of the daily social interaction. Using IM requires having an active list of buddies and being on a friends’ list by the authorization of peers. In that sense, the use of IM with strangers is uncommon as its appeal is mainly to existing friends.
While chat rooms and forums are technologies that link individuals around a shared topic of interest and concern, Instant Messenger, text messaging and social networking sites are technologies that link teens who have some knowledge of each other and belong to the same social circle or to the social circle of their friends.
Compared with other communication channels such as email, forums and chat rooms, IM has unique features. It is synchronous communication, mostly one-to-one or one-to-many. IM chatters enjoy real-time conversations and have a short spell to think before replying. Users are aware of other users’ online presence, and can choose to communicate to others and communicate their status (online, offline, away or busy). The application allows multitasking, namely to perform other tasks and chat at the same time. A blocking mechanism allows users to remove themselves from another user’s list or remove a friend from the list. At the same time, users are not able to communicate with others who are not enrolled with the same provider.
Young people’s use of instant and text messaging might be motivated by the need to belong to, maintain, and develop an existing social circle. In recent years a number of studies have confirmed this argument. A study of late adolescents that investigated motivations for IM use based themselves on the uses and gratifications framework. Participants named four main motivations for IM use. One was social entertainment, in which the user conducted IM communication to spend spare time, and to stay in touch with friends. A second, less frequent motivation was task accomplishment, that is, to learn from others how to do things, generate ideas, and make decisions. A third motivation was social attention, in particular mitigation of loneliness and getting support and affection from peers. The least frequent motivation named by the participants was meeting new people (Flanagin, 2006).
A study on motivation for and effects of participation in chat rooms and Instant Messenger sessions investigated in a sample of pre-adolescents whether online communication reduced perceived closeness to friends or stimulated closeness to existing friends. Online communication using IM proved to exert a positive effect on perceived closeness to friends. This effect was mainly because IM communication is conducted with friends who are known and represent and additional channel of communication that reinforces existing ties (Valkenburg & Peter, 2007). Another study of pre-adolescents (7th graders) probed the role of IM in their social life. Participants reported using the application for more frequent social interaction with their friends, gossip, and romantic communication. The most frequent motive, given by 92 percent of the respondents, was hanging out with a friend after school hours. Participants described their IM partners as long-standing friends and peers, first met at school. The study investigated the association between IM use and psychological well-being. Participants who reported feeling lonely at school on a daily basis were found more likely to have chat rooms sessions with individuals they met online and did not know face to face. Teens who felt well connected with their school friends tend to use IM to seek out additional opportunities of social interaction with them after school hours, mostly as a continuation of conversations that started during school hours (Gross, Juvonen & Gable, 2002).
A longitudinal study on the effect of different Internet activities on the quality of close adolescent relationships (best friendship and romantic relationships) among adolescents found that using the Internet for entertainment had a different effect on social ties from using social software. The type of Internet activity proved to have an influence on relationship quality a year later. Use of IM was positively associated with different aspects of romantic relationships and best friendship quality. In contrast, visiting chat rooms was negatively related to best friendship quality. Using the Internet for games and for general entertainment predicted decrease in relationship quality with best friends and romantic partners. As most communication through IM is with existing friends, these findings indicate that this type of communication maintains and improves positive aspects of best friendship and romantic ties such as trust and communication, and does not increase negative aspects such as alienation and conflict. Conversely, visiting chat rooms was related to increased alienation and conflict and decreased intimacy and companionship with best friends. Visiting chat rooms is communication mostly with strangers, and it is at the expense of time with close friends; this creates emotional distance and probably conflict with existing friends (Blais, Craig, Pepler, & Connolly, 2008).
A new but fast growing communication channels is SMS or short message service (SMS) that allows for short text messages to be sent from one cell phone to another cell phone or from the Web to another cell phone. Youth use SMS primarily to stay connected with their existing social network. The cell phone numbers of the personal social network are kept in the cell phone memory. Youth often send messages to their existing friends, to express their thoughts and feelings. SMS allow to youth to communicate with their friends, even when they are not able to conduct a phone conversation because of the presence of parents or others around.
Studies have shown that this is used for “micro-coordination”, a concept that refers to the instrumental use of mobile phones to coordinate in real time by allowing adjustment and readjustment in real time of the time and place of meeting (Ling & Yitri, 2002). Rather than setting a fixed time and place, youth use SMS to converge in real time on a common location. Other studies have investigated with whom teenagers communicate using SMS. From these we learn that SMS is often used for communication with parents and peers. It is rare that SMS is used to communicate with strangers (Grinter & Eldrige, 2001; Ling, 2004).
It is interesting to note that both SMS and IM are used to support an important developmental task of adolescence: the creation of a sense of autonomy. SMS messages allow teenagers to work within the constraints imposed upon them, such as their inability to drive and consequent reliance on public or parental transportation and the need to balance school and parental requirements on one hand with their social desires on the other. SMS is a channel that allows teenagers to stay in touch and communicate when doing homework and when being between family and extracurricular activities (Ito, 2001). For teenagers in traditional groups that constrain cross-sex meetings without adult control, IM serves to communicate with friends of the opposite sex without the knowledge and control of parents and siblings (Mesch & Talmud, 2007). In a study of Arab and Jewish Israelis, Mesch and Talmud (2007) found that Arab youngsters blended their IM use in with other computer work. If a parent or sibling approached, IM use was rendered temporarily invisible through window management, namely minimizing or hiding the chat window. Yet studies have found some differences in the use of SMS and IM. Often teenagers kept the phone engaged all the time and even responded to messages while they were meeting with others.
Two different types of Instant Messenger users were found: continuous and sporadic. The continuous mode involved running the IM software for lengthy periods, regardless of its use for chat or of its being in the background while other activities went on. The software was minimized but never closed, and text was added over the course of hours or days. Every teenager who used the IM in this way had a computer in their room and access to Internet connection. A second group preferred intensive sessions, setting a time of the day to chat with their close friends. These users usually did not have constant access to the computer, and arranged for conversations to be held during the hours when they did. As to the purpose, IM and SMS were found similar in that they were used to plan events, discuss homework, and exchange experiences. While event-planning with SMS involved sending messages to revise and update existing plans, such as informing that the bus was late, event-planning with IM referred to a place and time that once agreed remained fixed (Ling & Yttri, 2002).
Some caution is necessary in study of the use of Instant Messenger, SMS and social networking sites. The buddy list usually contains a very large number of contacts, including family, close friends and distant contacts. These applications are often used like phone books, encompassing all possible contacts. In fact, most adolescents contact regularly just close friends, but the length of the list of buddies often serves as an indication of popularity, and is displayed to the peer group (Taylor & Harper, 2003). It is not uncommon for the cell phone to be left purposely lying on the table, so friends can see the list.
An additional tension in the potential outcomes of the use of online communication that needs to be addressed the tension between social diversification and social bonding. At the center of the diversification approach is a conceptualization of ICT’s (Information and communication technologies) as a space of activity and social interaction. The Internet is not only about communication with existing ties. Although it is true that many adolescents use the Internet as another channel of communication with existing relationships, the innovative aspect of the Internet is to provide opportunities for activities that induce social interaction, providing a space for expansion and diversification of social relationships. Playing interactive games is more than playing games in a group of online members, and as in any game groups are formed, interaction is recurrent, and names and phone numbers are exchanged. Among adolescents, proximity is important for friendship formation because it establishes the boundaries within which they choose friends. Every individual occupies several separate but overlapping social worlds, each a potential sphere for association. A key location for meeting and making friends is school, where adolescents spend a large part of their waking hours. But other settings may be important as well. Adolescents spend their free time in neighborhood hangouts that they frequent after school. In shopping malls, video arcades, and movie theaters, usually in the neighborhood or nearby, groups of adolescents get to know others who live in the same neighborhood but do not attend the same school (Cotterell, 1996). Unlike other groups that are geographically more mobile and exposed to more diverse foci of activity, adolescents lack geographic mobility and are trapped in social relationships that involve individuals similar to them. Thus, certain technologies might support expansion of social relationships, including access to information, knowledge and skills that teens cannot access due to residential segregation.
Still, diversification is very likely to take place together with social bonding. The use of technologies that require previous knowledge, and even belonging to the same social circle, can be used to coordinate group activities, continue conversations that started at school, to express personal and intimate concerns, and to provide social support. In that sense, these technologies can support the development of peer group cohesion and the formation of a sense of togetherness for those who are part of the social circle. At the same time, they might exclude others who lack access to the technologies and those who are not accepted in the group.
Clarification of the intricate interaction of motivations for the use of different technologies with the type of social circle involved in their use is central to an understanding of the effects of information and communication technologies on the size, composition, and nature of the social relationships that characterize adolescence in the information age. We now attempt to illumine this crucial issue by reviewing and integrating knowledge from published empirical studies.
A number of studies support our position that online communication and its effects on network size, composition, and strength should be differential. The use of different channels leads to different results. For example, a longitudinal study of 884 adolescents on the effect of Internet use for social purposes (chat rooms and Instant Messenger) and for entertainment purposes found that Internet activity influenced later relationship quality with the best friend and romantic partner (Blais, et al, 2008). IM use was positively associated with most aspects of romantic relationship and best friendship quality. In contrast, visiting chat rooms was negatively related to best friendship quality. Using the internet to play games and for general entertainment predicted decreases in relationship quality (Blais et al., 2008). Another study on the use of Instant Messenger in Canada and Israel found that in both countries youth used this application to stay in touch with their romantic partner and best friends, and much less to contact individuals who were met online (Mesch, Quas-Han and Talmud, 2008). These studies indicate that when used to connect with members of the peer group, IM promotes rather than hinders intimacy, with frequent IM conversations encouraging the desire to meet face-to-face with friends (Hu, Yifeng & Smith, 2004). The main uses of IM are for socializing, event-planning, task accomplishment, and meeting new people (Grinter & Pallen, 2002; Flanagin, 2006). Thus, IM has a positive effect when used with known friends. Conversely, visiting chat rooms expands the size of young people’s networks and provides complementary social support; but this apparently is at the expense of intimacy with known friends and results in a perception of increased alienation and conflict and decreased intimacy and companionship with face-to-face friends. These two different activities clearly serve different functions.
Social networking sites are those that allow users to present information about themselves (such as age, gender, location, education and interests). Users are encouraged to link to known and likeminded others whose profile exists in the site, or invite known and likeminded individuals to join the site, establish and maintain contact with other users, post content, create a personal blog, and participate in online groups (Boyd & Ellison, 2007). The use of social networking sites appeals to the young population. A recent comparative study of social networking use in Europe and North America discovered a relationship between age and use. While 54 percent of those aged 16-24 had a profile, the percentage decreased to 26 percent in the group aged 25-34, to 12 percent in the group aged 35-44, and to 7 percent in the group aged 45-54 (Ofcom, 2008).
In fact, social networking sites appeal to a large number of users because they integrate in a single site capabilities that previously required moving from site to site. Examples of such capabilities are displaying a personal profile, sending and receiving messages of site members, participating in online communities and posts, and exchanging multimedia content (music, short movies, artwork and pictures).
Most sites encourage users to construct accurate representations of themselves, but is difficult to know to what extent individuals do so. Some people tend to provide limited information about themselves, while others, tend to disclose intimate information. Using the information about themselves, their e-mail contacts and the contacts of known others, users are able to build a network of connections. These connections may be actual offline friends or acquaintances, or people they only know or have met online, and with whom they have no other link.
As to user motivations, in a recent study in the USA of the Pew and American Life Project, 91 percent of all social networking teens said they used the sites to stay in touch with friends they saw frequently while 82 percent used them to stay in touch with friends they rarely saw in person; 72 percent used the sites to make plans with their friends. Only 49 percent used them to make new friends (Lenhart & Meiden, 2007). In the UK the findings were similar in that although users reported massive numbers of individuals as “friends”, the actual number of close friends was approximately the same as that of face-to-face friends (Smith, 2007). The research found that although the sites allowed contact with hundreds of acquaintances, people tend to have around five close friends and 90 percent of the contacts were people they had met face to face. Only 10 percent were contacts made with total strangers (Smith, 2007). The comparative Ofcom study found that on average only 17 percent of respondents with profile in social networking sites used the site to talk with people they did not know (Ofcom, 2008).
As to the social outcomes of the use of social networking sites, a few studies evaluated the extent that social networking sites facilitate increasing contacts with individuals belonging to a different social group or to the same social group of the user. They indicate that youngsters’ use of social networking sites results in an increase in social bonding, that is, contact with family and friends who reside in a different city or country and keeping in touch with friends who are met on a daily basis. Social networking sites facilitate updating others about the user’s activities and planning social and entertainment events with members of the peer group. The number of individuals on the contact list is often used as an indication of social standing, the extent of being socially involved with others. Far fewer are reports of making contact with others based on shared interests or hobbies (Ellison, Steinfeld & Lampe, 2006).
This chapter reviewed current studies on young people’s use of different types of social media. The main object was to take a close look at the possible sources of contradictory findings reported on the effect of online communication on adolescent social ties. From this review a number of important conclusions are drawn, which should illuminate future research. The most important conclusion is that the new social media have important implications for the understanding of adolescence. Youth face a media environment and conduct their social interactions using multiple channels of communication. Adolescents that have not access to the Internet very rapidly find themselves at a disadvantage, with the risk of being excluded from the most significant social activities of the peer group and access to information. At the theoretical level, theories of youth friendship formation and adolescence need to incorporate this emerging digital divide that affects the opportunities and impact of digitally based exclusion in peer groups.
Second, for adolescents that do have access, different motivations shape their choices of technologies and the different choices have different outcomes. The need to expand the social network and to diversify entail greater use of forums and chat rooms, which results in diversification and increase of network size; but this is at the expense of closeness to face-to-face friends, at least in the short run. The need to be highly involved with the face-to-face peer group and to increase belonging drives the use of IM, SMS and social networking sites, resulting in a higher perceived closeness to members of the peer group, and greater ability to coordinate joint activities. Theories of computer mediated communication that have focused on online communication among strangers need to be expanded to account for this rapid movement from online to offline and from offline to online.
Adolescent research should incorporate more the study of the differential use of social media and their differential effects on young people’s social networks. In particular, we must expand our understanding of the characteristics of adolescents who use diverse combinations of social media, what the motivations for these different combinations are, and what are the developmental outcomes.
Directions for Future Research
For youth establishing social connections is an important developmental activity. In this chapter the link between social media and the formation, development and maintenance of social ties has been reviewed. There is a need to study the effect of contextual factors on this process. Most social media is acquired through the action of existing social networks and choices of different applications might be affected by the actions of the peer group. Future research should explore the process of technology adoption by peers and how preferences are made to use Instant Messenger or Social Networking Sites.
The expansion of youth social ties is conducted in the context of belonging to a family and attending school. Until recently, the family and school had an important influence in the choice of friends. The school restricted the individuals to whom youth are exposed on a daily basis and parents’ try to exercise control on children’s friends. How these institutions are adopting to the potential expansion of youth social networks, and the potential change in their structure needs to direct future research.
Finally, much of our discussion has focused on the positive characteristics of social networks, namely access to information, to sociability, companionship and social support. Future studies should direct their focus to potential negative effects of social networks such as cyber bullying and harassment. In particular, how variations in the use of different applications are associated with these behaviors.