Digital Teens and the Three T's

There has been much angst in the press lately about teenagers and the Internet. Having recently been in London for the United Kingdom Council for Child Internet Safety (UKCCIS), I read breathless updates from the Daily Mail and their campaign against porn on the Internet. While I have considerable sympathy for the paper's desire to keep kids away from the worst of the web, even some Conservative Ministers tire of the Mail's incessant drumbeat for censorious legislation.

Closer to home, The Wall Street Journal wrote a front page article about a leaked report that Facebook was considering opening up their service to kids under the age of 13. A great deal of hand-wringing followed with some commentators equating Facebook with Big Tobacco. For the record, I argued in a Washington Post op-ed that opening up Facebook in a controlled, supervised and highly regulated manner would be a good thing. It would certainly change the culture of deception that leads kids and many of their parents to lie about their dates of birth to join social networking sites in the first place and provide a much safer environment for tweens who are already there in droves.

And, in just the past few weeks, Skout, the mobile social networking service, shut down its teen service when three incidents of rape were reported involving adult users and teens who had met using the app. After some soul searching and some dramatic changes to the user interface, the company re-launched the teen app last Friday, making it more of an online pen pal proposition, than a flirting and meet-up service as it is for the 18+ crowd.

Which begs the question as to whether teens (or tweens for that matter) should even be on social networking sites to begin with. Certainly one British MP that I spoke with in London felt that teens shouldn't be on Facebook at all. He echoed a call some years ago by a number of Attorneys General to raise the age for joining social networking sites to 16. After all, they argued, this is where all the cyberbullying, sexting, overexposure and addictive behaviors are demonstrating themselves. And where the predators were lying in wait for our innocent children.

And yet, research emerged recently that painted a slightly different picture. First, the basics: 90 percent of teens have visited social media sites with a full 75 percent who have a profile on Facebook or one of the other services. Fully half (51 percent) visit a social media site every day and a third do so several times a day. You would expect that with all this heavy and regular usage, there would be a good deal of problems and challenging behavior going on. And yet, teens felt that social networking helped with their relationships with friends (52 percent) and family (37 percent) as opposed to hurting them (4 percent with friends and 2 percent with family). It turns out that social media actually helps teens feel less shy and more confident with a tiny percentage (5 percent) feeling that social networking makes them feel more depressed.

Intriguingly, teens do value face time over screen time, which seems wonderfully reassuring with good old-fashioned talking coming out on top with texting next. Teens express frustration with their friends when they pay more attention to their gadgets than themselves. As a parent, I feel your pain. And just over a third wished they could go back to a time before Facebook.

Which brings me to an interesting development I've been observing in an unscientific way with my daughter and her friends. While they all maintain a Facebook profile, much more of their time, updates, arrangements and online life is being spent on the three T's: texting, Twitter and tumblr. In the latest research cited above, an amazing 77 percent of girls text daily and a third have tweeted. The use of Twitter by teens is a recent phenomenon as it has been more the reserve for us older folk. And yet, teens tweet, text and post on tumblr in online conversations that cascade from one platform to the next. Using these three services simultaneously also makes it easier for kids to disguise what's being said, spread or organized from pesky parents who have, for the most part, worked out how to monitor their kid's Facebook presence. And tumblr and Twitter feel less restricted, more anonymous and thus more free to a teen who is out to explore herself or try out an outlandish persona away from adult eyes.

So, for the most part, the kids are all right. Social media, while having downsides, appears to have less of a negative impact on our kids than once feared. If the latest research is to be believed, it can also be a source of positive reinforcement and social expression. And, in the coming months, it might also become A Platform for Good, but that's another story.

(Disclosure: My organization, the Family Online Safety Institute, receives funding from Facebook, Google, Microsoft and a number of other Internet companies.)