They haven't abandoned our shopping malls, coffeehouses, fast food joints, or convenience store parking lots, but increasingly, high school students are hanging out online as well as off, using social networks to congregate and stay connected with friends.
Web sites such as Facebook and MySpace provide parallel universes in which the typical teenager now spends about an hour a day. Indeed, social networks -- which support messaging, live chat, file sharing, and more -- have become so pervasive, says Kali Trzesniewski, an assistant professor of psychology at the University of Western Ontario, in London, Ontario, that it would be hard to find teens who aren't using at least one of these sites.
What's going on here? Plenty.
"Teens gather in networked public spaces to negotiate identity, gossip, support one another, jockey for status, collaborate, share information, flirt, joke, and goof around," notes researcher Danah Boyd, coauthor of "Hanging Out, Messing Around, Geeking Out: Living and Learning with New Media," a major study from the Digital Youth Project.
In other words, they're doing what teenagers have always done, only in a virtual venue that's open 24/7. The good news is that they're gaining the technological skills and literacy they need to succeed, says cultural anthropologist Mimi Ito, lead researcher for the project.
To the uninitiated, however, the photos, videos, and cryptic comments that kids post on their personal pages often appear as impenetrable as a tenth grader's cluttered locker. Because schools tend to block access to social-networking sites, many educators have a tough time harnessing their potential as a teaching tool and modeling appropriate networking-site behaviors.
While educators, parents, and even researchers work to understand and find ways to address the changing nature of teen communication, students are left to navigate the vast online landscape mostly in their free time -- and typically without much supervision or guidance from adults. In the meantime, adolescents are using the virtual world to figure out who they are, what they care about, and how to get along with others.
Being Part of the Crowd
"It can be hard for the generations before us to grasp why this is so important," says Allie Mennie, a plugged-in junior at La Salle High School, in Pasadena, California. "Our parents ask us, 'Why don't you just hang out with the same five friends you've always had?'" But Mennie says she connects regularly with some 600 Facebook friends, updating them on everything from her prom photos to political-action campaigns. "It's so useful," she adds.
Like many teens, Mennie doesn't compartmentalize her life into online and offline experiences. She says a quick question posted to Facebook -- such as "What are you doing tonight?" -- might generate a phone call from a nearby friend. "Then we'll hang out or do something," Mennie notes.
During the 2008 election, Mennie used the same network to organize pro-Obama campaign events in her area. She also uses the Orkut site to stay in touch with a friend who lives in São Paulo, Brazil. "We trade little stories and talk about the same things we would if we were hanging out in the same room," Mennie explains.
Freda Anderson, a student at Philadelphia's Science Leadership Academy, says she avoided social networks for the longest time because it seemed "so American" to have a digital social life. "We can use technology for many more amazing purposes," she observes.
But after attending a summer environmental program with teens from all over the country and taking part in an exchange trip to Liverpool, England, she says her new friends influenced her to take the plunge: "They convinced me that I had to join Facebook. We couldn't stay in touch without it."
Ian Boyd was even more skeptical, but he ultimately joined the club, too. Boyd describes himself as a "drama kid" who's active in school theater, and he suspects he was among the last of his classmates at South Eugene High School, in Eugene, Oregon, to get into social networking.
"I was a Facebook cynic," admits Boyd, who still prefers real-life interactions to virtual ones. But when Boyd's classmates kept mentioning that they had seen photos of him on the popular site, his curiosity was piqued. He now checks in daily to comment on the status updates, photos, and videos posted by his 500 online friends. "Facebook is huge," Boyd says. "I had no idea. I've been turned."
Building Interpersonal Skills
Friendship, already a potential minefield of adolescence, can get more complicated with social networking. Sites often ask users to choose, list, and even rank their online friends. The public nature of friending creates the potential for teen drama, acknowledges Diane Crockett, a teacher at the Brevig Mission School, in the remote village of Brevig Mission, Alaska.
"It's typical junior high stuff," she explains, but it's amplified because scores of people -- not just the friends in a student's inner circle -- are sharing the information. (Read more about Crockett's award-winning digital-identity project to educate kids about social-networking sites.)
Teens are devising rules for what's cool and what's not when it comes to navigating friendships in the digital age. Friends sharing their out-of-school interests online? Cool. Friends messaging one another so often it feels like stalking? Uncool. Teachers looking for insight can check out Thatsnotcool.com, a new campaign from the Ad Council, the Office on Violence Against Women, and the Family Violence Prevention Fund that's intended to promote healthy youth relationships.
They developed the site with ample involvement from kids, using blogs and face-to-face "friendship groups" in which kids talked about the issues -- and let the adults know when they were just not getting it. The resulting Web site lists what teens consider to be the top social-networking gaffes, such as spreading rumors or violating other people's privacy. It also offers downloadable "callout cards" that kids can use to label bad behavior. For instance, one card reads, "Those rumors you spread about me made my dog cry."
Trying too hard to boost one's online appeal is a less egregious error than, say, rumor mongering, but it still crosses the line into uncool territory. Anderson is wary of those who covet too much online attention. "You see some people begging you to comment on their page, or they look like they have a lot of friends because they got their friend number up. That's kind of pathetic," she states.
Similarly, Mennie rolls her eyes at an acquaintance who claims she has 21,000 friends: "She doesn't know 21,000 people. Give me a break." And Mennie disapproves of accepting a friend request from a total stranger: "That seems really weird," she explains.
Indeed, teens are more likely to be friends online with people they know in real life, reports John Suler, a psychologist from Rider University who writes about the psychology of cyberspace. "The large majority of activity with online friends is with people one already knows in person," he observes.
"I rarely get the impression that students are making new friends by friending someone on Facebook. Instead, they friend someone they already know," he explains. "The network then allows you to stay in touch and stay in the loop to see who is connecting with whom."
Establishing One's Identity
Neuropsychologist Tom Boyd, Ian Boyd's father, hasn't formally researched social networking. But he has a hunch about why his son and and the boy's friends spend so much time on these sites, which are anchored by the users' profile pages.
"It's kind of like creating a brand," he says. "It's saying, 'This is who I am.' Someone sees a new photograph of himself and says, 'OK, that's going to be my main picture now.' This is a way of presenting who you are."
Teens have always used clothing and hairstyles to shout out their identity, but some researchers wonder whether kids are entering new territory when it comes to obsessing over self-image. Psychologist and author Jean Twenge has gone so far as to label today's youth "Gen Me." But Trzesniewski says her research counters concerns about encroaching narcissism: "Today's teenagers are no more self-absorbed than previous generations," she says.
And having around-the-clock access to online friends has not changed teens' feelings of loneliness. "They're not any more lonely or any less lonely," adds Trzesniewski. Even with this new online behavior, she insists, "the core aspects of personality aren't changing."
Ian Boyd is already anticipating how his social network will help him stay in touch with his hometown friends long after graduation. "Facebook is going to be a cool thing to have when we're all 50," he predicts. "We'll be able to look back at old photos and remember having fun at parties. It's like we're documenting our life as it happens."
Suzie Boss, a journalist who lives in Portland, Oregon, is coauthor of Reinventing Project-Based Learning: Your Field Guide to Real-World Projects in the Digital Age. She also blogs for Edutopia.org.
Go to "How to Talk About Life Online."