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by John Suler, Ph.D.
Adolescents typically spend a lot of time talking with other teens online in websites such as MySpace and Facebook. Online teens now are a significant population, and it is important that kids as well as parents understand what is happening in this online world. First, simply by spending significant amounts of time online, it's inevitable that a teenagers' on-line social skills will improve. They will be encountering people of various ages and cultural backgrounds, so they have the opportunity to learn how to relate to a wide variety of people. Under optimal conditions, those skills may carry over to their in-person life. With the advent of MySpace and Facebook, kids are developing entire worlds where they can interact with literally tens of millions of other kids from around the planet. These worlds are very complex and range in their expressions. Who Are These Teens Online?
On one hand, we have expressions of the immature teen who approaches these websites as if they are simply advanced computer games without real human beings on the other end. Without seeing or hearing the real person behind the typed words or avatars, they (probably unconsciously) behave as if the other person is some kind of robot or Donkey Kong target. And so they start shooting profanities, inappropriate sexual remarks, and other words of abuse. Being able to hide behind their own on-line anonymity makes the abuse even easier to inflict. It provides an easy, safe way to satisfy that need to vent the frustrations of their real life. In some on-line communities, the hardcore trouble-making adolescents are given the uncomplimentary title of "SNERT" (snot-nosed-eros-ridden-teenager). They can be a real nuisance. In extreme cases they may be banned from the community, especially when they try to hack the computer system. Of course, not all adolescents are so extreme in their tendency to misbehave outline. The more intensely teens act out, the more likely they are having problems in their real life and are using the internet to ventilate and escape from those real life tensions. On the other hand, we have more mature teens and young adults who use these online worlds to satisfy that need to express, explore, and experiment with their identity. The good aspect of on-line anonymity is that it encourages people to discuss things about themselves that they would hesitate revealing in real life. Kids can learn a lot about themselves from that. Building a personal web page also is a great exercise in figuring out who you are by what you want to show and tell others about yourself. Teens can create worlds where they experiment with imaginative identities that express their hidden wishes, needs, and fears. The character they create for themselves may give them the opportunity to act like the type of person they admire. Under ideal conditions, they can learn something about themselves from the characters they create. Maybe they can even develop, in their real life, the traits they admire in their characters. Under less than ideal conditions, the on-line personae simply become another way to ventilate the frustrations and conflicts of their real lives, without any personal insight or change. It's the difference between using their on-line characters to work through their problems, as opposed to simply acting them out. Where Everyone Knows Your Name
More so than anything else, adolescents are drawn to the Internet because they make friends there. They find new groups to join -- a place where they feel like they belong, where everyone knows their name. Just being an on-line automatically makes you part of the in-crowd, and from there you can pick, choose, and create almost any other specific type of group you want. Internet technology...