Social Web sites benefit teenagers

By Paolo Cisneros

Adolescents who use the Internet as a social networking tool can be exposed to very real threats, but an essay published by a University professor in this month’s edition of the Journal of Adolescent Research claims that the benefits teenagers receive from online social networking often far outweigh the potential dangers.

Brendesha Tynes, professor of educational psychology and African American Studies, authored “Internet Safety Gone Wild?” which claims that adults who prohibit their children from participating in online interaction with peers through social networking sites like Facebook and MySpace are actually doing them a disservice.

“I’ve been seeing stories in the news almost on a daily basis about Internet safety that warn parents about the dangers of going online,” Tynes said. “While we don’t discount those dangers, the sensationalizing of the risks often causes people to ignore the benefits.”

Tynes’ research has shown that online interaction provides teenagers with the opportunity to explore questions of personal identity among other things.

“During adolescence, kids are trying to construct their own identity and oftentimes they’re able to safely experiment with creating that identity online,” Tynes said. “It gives them the outlet they need to feel a sense of autonomy.”

Networking sites also allow teenagers the opportunity to develop real-life skills such as the ability to think critically, build personal relationships and thoughtfully challenge the opinions of others, Tynes said.

“Very often, if a person’s arguments have holes in them, other kids will call them on it,” she said. Adolescents posting racist sentiments, for example, are often confronted by their peers. In that way, Tynes added, adolescents are obtaining important social skills that help them become better prepared for the challenges they will face as adults.

The anonymity that online networking offers can also be a positive asset as it provides teenagers with a sense of security that is often hard to find in real-life interactions. Tynes has encountered teenagers who use the privacy the Internet provides to ask sensitive questions regarding sexuality and body image. Parents who are overly surveillant of what their children do online, she said, often curtail their children’s willingness to address such sensitive issues.

While that same anonymity can potentially put adolescents in harm’s way, Tynes’ essay argues that online social networking can be done safely, provided the proper precautions are taken.

Yost Smith, freshman in Engineering, acknowledges the risks associated with online interaction, but agrees Internet safety for teenagers is very possible.

“As long as there’s education about how to be safe (online), I’m not too worried about the potential dangers,” he said.

Paul Schorfheide, freshman in Engineering, agrees that the danger most adults associate with adolescents going online are often blown out of proportion.

“There are definite risks, but I think that most teenagers are capable of mitigating them by being responsible about what kind of information they post,” he said.

At the heart of Tynes’ research is the idea that online interaction assists adolescents in becoming mature and responsible adults.

“A lot of experts are saying we need to monitor what our kids are doing online more closely,” she said, “but what I’m saying is that we should pull back just a little because the benefits that teenagers can receive from going online can be far greater than the drawbacks.”