Adriana Manago has picked a doozy of a topic for her academic research.
A new assistant professor at Western Washington University, she is studying the impact of Facebook and other social media on the social development of young people.
It's a topic that generates strong opinions, from people who see the Internet fostering nimble thinking well-suited to an emerging new world, to parents and others who worry the Internet is raising a generation of youths trapped in a digital bubble with Neanderthal social skills.
Manago was the featured speaker at a community talk last week sponsored by Western's Department of Psychology for its Family Academy lecture series. Another talk in the series will be held later this spring, with a topic and date to be determined.
The title of Manago's talk, "What is the Internet Doing to Teens? (And What are Teens Doing to the Internet?)," mirrors the ebb and flow of research in the new field of study.
With more 1 billion Facebook users worldwide, social media is ubiquitous and here to stay. Social networking sites are the top online activity for teenagers, so parents should know which social media their sons and daughters are using, Manago says.
But the impact of all that Facebooking and other online activity varies from youth and youth and social media to social media, she says.
"The idea is how to use these tools responsibly," Manago says.
Like it or not, social media, by their nature, make teens and other users the center of their digital social world. On the plus side, youths can use the Internet to learn from their peers, gain a sense of social support, help one another, and maintain contacts with others both near and far.
Social media, especially forums like Facebook, also give youths a chance to reflect on who they are and who they want to be before they present their digital self online.
Downsides of social media include cyberbullying, a distorted sense of what should be private, envy about all the fun things that other people are displaying on their pages, and an unhealthy reliance on what other think about you.
Manago says it's a fallacy to separate social media from the rest of a young person's life. Rather, it makes better sense to see how social media reflects, and sometimes distorts, what's going on with teens at school, home and elsewhere.
For example, youths with good social skills are likely to be equally good at making digital friends. Meanwhile, teens with poor social skills might have a poor experience with social media, and are more likely be to victims of cyberbullying if they are being bullied by people in the flesh.
So it's important that parents help foster their children's social skills from the get-go, through, for example, family dinners and healthy social activities in school, church and other realms.
It also matters which parts of social media a teen is using. Facebook, for example, is less anonymous than other forums and tends to feature positive expressions, Manago says.
Webcams pose a higher risk, she says, because impulsive youths can use them to expose their bodies, images that can quickly go viral. Also high-risk are message boards and instant messaging sites, because anonymity can be easier to maintain and online chatting can easily lead to impulsive, negative comments.
Contact Dean Kahn at firstname.lastname@example.org or 360-715-2291.
Adriana Manago suggests these websites for people interested in youths' use of social media:
http://cyberbullying.us - Facts for teens and parents from the Cyberbullying Research Center.
thatsnotcool.com - Resources for teens to learn about digital boundaries, from a national public education campaign sponsored and Futures Without Violence, the U.S. Department of Justice's Office on Violence Against Women, and the Advertising Council.
athinline.org - MTV's website about the thin line between digital use and digital abuse.
sparksummit.com and missrepresentation.org - Two sites from movements to end the sexualization of girls in the media.
commonsensemedia.org - A website for parents that rates books, movies, TV shows and websites.
dmlcentral.net - A collaborative blog from researchers associated with the Digital Media and Learning Research Hub.
Reach DEAN KAHN at email@example.com or call 715-2291.