Teenagers & The Internet: Who Is Mastering Who?

The more you practise the better you get at something!  The more you use a tool the greater your skill is.  Eventually you become a master of what ever the skill or pursuit is. Unless of course you are a teenager and that tool in question is the Internet.

The accepted wisdom of our age is teens have grown up with the Internet. Their relationship to the web is synonymous with that of fish and water.  If any generation is the master of the Internet it is the younger generation.

Two separate pieces of research released in the last week suggest there are a couple of important caveats to this accepted wisdom.  Teens are not necessarily the masters of cyberspace as many would have us believe.

Internet Addiction and Depression

A new study published in Pediatrics & Adolescent Medicine, involving 1,000 teenagers found those who use the internet excessively are about two and a half times more likely to develop depression.

Of the 1000 teens initially surveyed, 6.2 per cent were classified as being moderately pathological Internet users and 0.2 per cent were “severely pathological” users. Nine months later, these teens were reassessed for depression and anxiety and 8.4 percent had become depressed.

Researchers are yet to determine whether or not the teens who became depressed were at risk of depression before they became addicted to the Internet.

One factor to the link between overuse of the Internet and psychological problems like depression may be that the Internet is actually isolating and alienating.

American researcher Michael Glibert commented on the study saying “Parents are indicating to us that a lot of their children’s friendship circles are contracting by reason of the fact they are spending too much time on the Internet…This ties in generally with the notion that Internet behaviour is becoming disruptive in the family.”

An Internet addiction is defined as a compulsive loss of impulse control resulting in damage to the user and his or her relationships, schoolwork, or employment.

Common components in all forms of internet addiction are:

  1. Excessive use, often associated with a loss of sense of time or a neglect of basic drives.
  2. Withdrawal, including feelings of anger, tension, and/or depression when the computer is inaccessible.
  3. Tolerance, including the need for better computer equipment, more software, or more hours of use.
  4. Negative repercussions, including arguments, lying, poor achievement, social isolation, and fatigue.

So while the majority of teens seem to master the web, it appears that for a significant minority the Internet is mastering them with detrimental effect.

In Google We Trust

Elsewhere in research land, researchers have been investigating if growing up using the internet actually makes you any good at it.  The results are worth noting.

A study published by the International Journal of Communication found college students aren’t the most discerning or knowledgeable internet users. The article, Trust Online: Young Adults’ Evaluation of Web Content, conducted by researchers at Northwestern University, demonstrated that students are not turning to the most relevant clues to determine the credibility of online content.

When researchers observed students searching for information, the students rarely assessed the credibility of websites using appropriate criteria such as examining author credentials, checking references, etc. Instead, they placed trust in familiar brands of search engines like Google or Yahoo and their rankings.

Students trusted the search engines to provide them with the “best” results for their research needs.

“Many students think, ‘Google placed it number one, so, of course it’s credible. This is potentially tricky because Google doesn’t rank a site by its credibility” said researcher Eszter Hargittai.

“In some cases, the respondent regarded the search engine as the relevant entity for which to evaluate trustworthiness, rather than the Web site that contained the information. The following exchange between the researcher and a female social science major illustrates this point well:

Researcher: What is this Web site?

Respondent: Oh, I don’t know. The first thing that came up”

While some of the students did give more credibility to websites ending in dot-gov, and dot-edu, most didn’t know dot-org domain names could be registered by anyone, and thus are not inherently different from dot-com sites.

This provides another warning, particularly to educators, that while this generation of teens are “Digital Natives,” their digital intuition is not always to be taken for granted or relied upon.  Media literacy and research skills are not skills that are acquired from merely using the internet a lot, they are skills that need to be taught.

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