The MacArthur Foundation has a message for parents worried about their children's use of the Internet: Chill out.
A study to be released today found that most teenagers steer clear of dangerous sites and use the Web only for research or to communicate with friends.
“One of the main things we found is that it is highly motivating for kids to learn from peers, whether it's the everyday social stuff or learning about new technology or making videos or doing creative writing,” said Mizuko Ito, a University of California, Irvine researcher and the report's lead author.
“They're learning a lot of the basic social and technical skills they need to participate in contemporary society. If kids are excluded from participating, they're not learning to engage with media and technology in the way that their peers are.”
Over three years, researchers interviewed more than 800 children and parents and spent thousands of hours observing how teenagers engage with networking sites. They discovered that the Internet has become a necessary component of a child's education and maturation.
The digital media study found that many parents are hyper-sensitive about what they feel are dangers lurking online, although their children actually tend to stay within their already established circle.
“We found in the friendship-driven network – that includes getting to know people, flirting and dating – those were almost always contained with kids' existing peer groups,” Ito said. “Social norms around this were pretty much in line with what adults would consider appropriate.”
Although parents worry about who their children are talking to online, Ito said they might actually be posting their stories online, critiquing someone else's prose and becoming engaged in a community focused on analyzing and appreciating their work. It's not the traditional teacher-student method, but it may be what reaches teenagers in the digital age.