An University of Illinois education researcher has found that online interaction in the context of teenagers has many benefits. And most often, these outweigh the potential dangers.
The study, conducted by Brendesha Tynes, a professor of educational psychology and of African American studies at Illinois, stated 'but we may do adolescents a disservice when we curtail their participation in these spaces, because the educational and psychosocial benefits of this type of communication can far outweigh the potential dangers.'
However, Tynes said that media reports warn of online predators, hate groups and other "digital dangers" lurking in online social spaces, and those dangers should not to be taken lightly.
She said that in online discussions, teenagers have the opportunity to develop critical thinking and argumentation skills. They can find support from online peer groups, explore questions of identity, get help with homework, and ask questions about sensitive issues they might be afraid to ask face to face.
Through this type of communication, according to Tynes, teenagers can develop their skills in understanding issues from the perspective of others.
She said that in many circumstances, the same anonymity that parents and educators find so threatening about certain online sites and spaces was actually a benefit. In particular that can be true with issues involving races and ethnicities, which Tynes has found in her research to be "very much a common theme" in adolescents' online discussions.
In the study when Tynes focused on open-topic chat rooms, she found that race was mentioned in 38 of 39 discussions.
The analysis found that hate groups were online and proliferating. Added to that is the racial or ethnic insensitivity to be found routinely in many online conversations, Tynes said.
"That being said, I also think that there are myriad positive outcomes that are related to interracial interaction online," she said.
The researcher said that some teenagers who believe that racism no longer exists might readily find it in online discussions.
Some may go online and spread false information or make insensitive remarks, but find themselves challenged, she said.
"It's sort of like having training wheels for engaging in interracial discussions (offline)," Tynes said.
According to the researcher schools should encourage online discussion as a substitute for what is missing in hallways and classrooms.
"I think the Internet would be a perfect place to engage the racial issues that may not come up because of this re-segregation," she said.
Instead of trying to close down or closely monitor teenagers' access to social networking, chat rooms and discussion boards online, Tynes suggested, "the first line of defence should be teens themselves. Increasingly, tech-savvy adolescents are aware of the risks in online socializing and are developing their own strategies for staying safe in cyberspace."
She suggested that parents and educators should maintain an open and honest dialogue with teens about the dangers and potential benefits of the Internet to build on awareness about Internet.
Tynes also suggested that adults could help teens "develop an exit strategy" for use, when necessary, in certain online spaces.
"Teens should know how to warn or block persons who make them feel threatened and how to extract themselves from uncomfortable situations," she said.
The study will be issued in the Journal of Adolescent Research.