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Teens & Tech: Living and Thriving Within the Boundaries of Digital Citizenship

Since the creation of the smart phone in January of 2007, parents and educators have felt angst about their youth’s ready access to the internet. This anxiety has only been exacerbated by the proliferation of social media apps such as Instagram, Facebook, and Snapchat. Although it cannot be denied that the well-being of teens can be undermined through the internet, this article will address the positive aspects of teens using the World Wide Web.

We can help youth to have a positive experience online by promoting an understanding of what it means to be a good digital citizen. Teens need to be educated about how the internet and online media work. This must include a clear understanding about the importance of privacy settings. Youth also need to be equipped with the skills to critically understand, analyse, and create content, as well as the ability to discern appropriate sources in their research. Awareness of the potential impact of their words and a solid moral grounding in what is an acceptable use of the internet is imperative to both protect themselves and others. Inappropriate chat rooms, pornography, bullying are all topics that parents and educators need to address in the home and in class. Teens that are struggling and acting out in their own lives will also express their struggles online. Their virtual lives are often a reflection of their lives at home or at school.

Digital technology has increasingly become an essential part of young people’s lives, so much so that many parents now discipline their teens by cutting off their access to social media and other internet pursuits. The research also reports that some 55% of parents say they limit the time their teens spend on the internet. Today’s youth, often referred to as ‘digital natives,’ haven’t known life without access to the internet. Social media provides online tools and services, such as Facebook, LinkedIn, and Instagram that allow young internet users to communicate and publish content. Young people use social media to create online communities in order to connect and discuss issues that matter to them, share information, ideas, personal messages, and other content. They can also find material of interest online, such as information on various sports or how to properly care for their pet.

Teens love to share photos, videos, or interesting articles. Many enjoy online games and like to join or follow groups that share their interests. Academic growth can be facilitated through access to online material. If instructed about the importance of research and seeking out good sources, teens can access material that both informs and educates them. Self-esteem and a sense of belonging are increased through staying connected to their community and learning about how the opinions of other peers might differ from their own.

The online world can enhance the lives of healthy and grounded teens. Creative expression is one of the benefits of the new technology. Through access to the internet teens can produce and share their work online. This creative expression can take the form of a short story, poem, novel, photographs, and even a film. Teen artists and writers can explore their chosen artistic passion online and connect with others who share these interests. One of the best spaces for teen writers is Storybird.com, where their own book can be created in minutes. TeenInk.com and One-Story.com are two sites devoted to editing and getting teen writers published. For aspiring photographers and doodlers Snapchat offers creative ways for youth to express themselves.

Social media helps teens connect with each other. Communicating with their friends online helps them to maintain and develop supportive relationships and encourages the formation of their identity through self-expression. For young people who are socially shy or have unique interests not shared by their offline peers, the internet can provide the much needed human connection. Teens that care deeply about the environment, for example, or Civil War re-enactment can find other like-minded youth that share these passions. An isolated teen struggling with an issue such as alcohol abuse can find help and support. These connections can literally be a lifesaver.

Teens that have taken the long view of their lives and have specific goals can use LinkedIn, a professional website, to bring their skills to the attention of colleges or employees. This gives youth the opportunity to communicate their personal story, how they shine, and what sets them apart. Teens can start their LinkedIn account as young as 13 and add their accomplishments in the summary feature as they achieve them. A winning poem or essay or perhaps a video of their piano recital can all work to brand them as a ‘can do’ teen. When the time come that they need a resume, all they have to do is send the link.

Online communication is the very centre of the social life of Western teens. Research does point to opportunities for positive psychological and social development in adolescents through communication online. Friendships can grow and deepen. Identity can become more integrated and self-esteem made stronger. Through friendships, both online or off, teens develop a sense of intimacy and learn how to maintain or, if necessary, terminate relationships. Teens also need to become secure in who they are and what kind of person they want to become. They need to develop a firm sense of self.

Adolescents are trying out their wings, and this includes accepting their sexuality and learning to engage in mutual, non-exploitive, and safe contacts with members of the opposite sex. Moving through these developmental tasks are necessary before they can become successful and functional adults. These tasks are achieved through learning and practicing what works and what is safe when selecting and sharing aspects of one’s self to others. Adolescents learn to adjust their self-presentation by observing the reaction of their peers. Through this feedback they can rehearse their social identities. Learning to adjust their self-disclosure is more important, as they are sharing intimate information about themselves, a critical component in developing deep and long lasting relationships.

In light of this information, it is easy to understand why teens find online communication so compelling. Compared to speaking face to face, online communication provides some control as they practice self-presentation and the more threatening skill, self-disclosure. Chatting online feels safer and frees them to practice their social skills with a measure of security and, at times, anonymity. The added feature of being able to think through their response before it is sent adds another layer of controllability and security. Finally, there is the freedom choose whom they communicate with and what they share with like-minded peers. Social networking sites can also provide access to peers they might not see often, or old friends that they might no longer have access to geographically.

Studies confirm that social media can provide teens a safe space to share their inner selves and practice positive developmental growth. This freedom to self-disclose also encourages the development of friendships and enhances their quality. Due to the anonymous nature of the internet, online communication is also a relatively safe place for adolescents to discuss sensitive issues such as their sexuality and health. They can also find answers from credible websites for some of their questions. Today the internet is a far safer place for teens than it was in its early stages. Youth who have been adequately taught to use technology in an appropriate and responsible manner can keep themselves safe. The bonus will be access to the informative and creative websites available to them.

By: Alison Zenisek

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Contact Stephanie Duprat for more information at
1-888-634-5556 x106 or stephanie@mzpinc.ca.