Digital Media And Social Networking In The Teen World
October 23, 2012

Teenagers Use Technology For A Better Sense Of Belonging And Identity

Lee Rannals for - Your Universe Online

Experts have looked into whether the digital age is altering a teenager's social development, and reported their findings in the Journal of Adolescence.

In a new study from the University of Washington, researchers show that digital media is helping teens reach developmental milestones, like gaining a sense of belonging and sharing personal problems.

Adolescents have been gaining access to Internet-connected technologies more and more, and at a younger age over the years.

The team found that being glued to smartphones and social networking websites has had positive effects on a teen's ability to fit in. However, not all the findings were positive.

The study also raised questions about whether digital connectedness might hinder the development of an autonomous sense of self.

Katie Davis, an assistant professor in the Information School and an expert on digital media use during adolescence, said that this new social adaptation is called "Friendship 2.0."

“What they´re doing is different from generations of teenagers from before the digital era, but it comes from the same place of basic developmental needs. It´s just that they´re using different tools to satisfy these needs,” Davis said.

Davis interviewed 32 adolescents, aged 13 to 18, living on the island of Bermuda where teens have similar digital media habits as U.S. teens.

She asked them about how they use media to communicate with friends, and came up with some data about their media use.

She found that 94 percent of the adolescents had cell phones, while 53 percent had Internet-enabled mobile devices.

Davis said that 91 percent of the adolescents had Facebook profiles, and 78 percent use online instant messaging like MSN, AOL or Skype. Ninety-four percent used YouTube, and just nine percent used Twitter.

Although more Bermudian teens use social networking sites and own cell phones than American teens, Davis said her findings from the island can provide insights to the U.S.

She found that friends stay connected through frequent check-ins, sharing something funny that happened or asking what they are up to or how they are doing.

Nearly half of the participants said they talked about positing photos of themselves with their friends and then tagging their friends, allowing them to discuss a shared experience and promote a sense of belonging to a circle of friends.

Almost 70 percent of participants included how they were feeling, whether they were having a bad day or other problems that they hoped to get their friends' help with.

Davis found that some participants considered the ability to connect anytime and anywhere with their friends to not just be convenient, but necessary.

“Adolescents are interacting with their peers constantly, and the question arises as to whether they can still develop an autonomous sense of self,” Davis said.

Davis added that she suspects this constant connectivity may support the development of an outward-looking self, which is a person that looks to others for affirmation rather than relying on an internal sense of worth and efficacy.

“Relying on others for self-affirmation suggests a relatively fragile sense of self, but our study doesn´t say for sure that that is what is going on,” Davis concluded. “What we can say is that adolescents are using digital media to promote their sense of belonging and self-disclosure of personal problems, two important peer processes that support identity development.”