Are social networking sites really infantilising our teenagers?

Adults should be wary of criticising young people for spending time on the internet. They are taking control of their lives. There are some strange things being said at the moment about the mind-warping dangers of young people using the internet too much, especially for social networking purposes.
Some "experts" have told us that young people are missing out on crucial benefits of physical proximity because of their enthusiasm for virtual social worlds, forgetting, perhaps, that they also spend several hours a day crammed into classrooms together. We've also been told that they are compromising their attention spans by spending so much time on sites such as Bebo and Facebook.

These questions are entirely legitimate and deserve to be asked, but ideally not in the spirit of setting off another moral panic. It is not, after all, as if no-one has thought of them already. A considerable number of social scientists have been working in this area throughout the world for quite some time now.

A team of us at Oxford University's department of education are involved in such research, as part of a programme of work organised by Becta (a government body) in support of its "harnessing technology strategy". Our project is looking at how young people aged 8 to 19 use technologies in their own time, at home. For the most part, what we are seeing is far from the anxiety-inducing picture presented in the media. The experiences of young people change as they grow older. Eight-year-olds engage in very little social networking, and for the most part are watched over and guided by parents who are only too aware of the dangers of letting their children loose in the cyber world.

Many teenagers do begin to spend regular time on Bebo, a junior version of Facebook, as well as on MSN, sending chat messages to one another. They often play interactive online games in which the communication with other players is far more important than the details of narrative. It is far from obvious that these are negative experiences.

Alongside such activities, youngsters are using their computers as the focal point for many other things they do each day: homework, watching TV on demand, listening to music and following personal interests such as video editing, composing music and surfing the web. It is clear to us that young people like the freedom, and the responsibility, that comes with being able to take control of these sources of communication, entertainment and knowledge for themselves. We have also been struck by the large proportion of them who are only too keen to get out and do other things. We are not seeing a generation of young people wasting their leisure time hypnotised in front of screens. Not everything they do, or encounter, on the internet is what any of us would judge as desirable, and not all of them spend their time wisely.

However, we see a lot of evidence to suggest that, far from infantilising young people, the computer and the internet together provide a powerful means by which young people can begin to take control of their lives in ways which adults should be very cautious about condemning so readily. Dr Chris Davies is course director for the MSc in e-Learning at the University of Oxford's department of education.

Young people benefit from learning to take responsibility for their lives online.

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