Social Networking

Risk-Taking Equates to Learning for Teens Going Online

When you discover that a teen in your life has posted something astonishingly inappropriate online and you find yourself asking, "What was he/she thinking?" you wouldn't be alone. But there's also little you can do to stop the practice. According to research at Pennsylvania State University, it's just the way teenagers approach their online activities. Whereas most adults think before undertaking a risky behavior, teens tend to take the risk and then seek help, said Haiyan Jia, post-doctoral scholar in the College of Information Sciences and Technology.

"Adults often find this very difficult to understand and paradoxical because they are so used to considering possible risks of disclosing information online first and then taking the necessary precautions, based on those concerns," said Jia in a statement. "What our model suggests is that teens don't think this way — they disclose and then evaluate the consequences. The process is more experiential in nature for teens."

The research team used data gathered for the Pew Research Center's 2012 Teens and Privacy Management Survey. This secondary analysis looked at responses from 588 American teens as well as one of their parents. The teens were ages 12 to 17 and most were active users of Facebook; some used other social media sites such as Twitter and Instagram.

"For adults, the basic model is that different factors contribute to an individual's concern for his or her information privacy and based on that privacy concern the user takes certain actions, for example, disclosing less information," said Pamela Wisniewski, a post-doctoral scholar in information sciences and technology, who worked with Jia. "This is a very rational, adult-focused model, however, that doesn't seem applicable to teens."

As the researchers noted, teens use social media for self-expression and to gain acceptance from peers. Those desires can lead to revealing too much personal information, such as contact information or photos of themselves. Typically, it's only after they struggle with privacy problems that teens take action to reduce their risks, such as seeking advice from adults, removing online information or going offline completely, according to the researchers

Whereas parents may want to jump to a solution that simply forbids access to the Internet or social media, that can create new problems, the researchers reported.

"First, I can't imagine a teen growing up and avoiding the Internet and online communications in this age," Jia pointed out. "But there's also a danger that without taking on the minimum risks, teens will not have access to all the positive benefits the Internet can provide, nor will they learn how to manage risk and how to safely navigate this online world."

She suggested parents help their kids learn how to maneuver through and use the Internet and social media safely through increased exposure.

"It's a lot like learning to swim," Jia said. "You make sure they enter the water slowly and make sure they know how to swim before you let them swim on their own and in the deeper parts."

Jia, Wisniewski and several colleagues have presented two papers on the topic at this week's Computer-Supported Cooperative Work and Social Computing conference in Vancouver, BC. Those papers are available in the ACM Digital Library here and here.

Partial support for the work was provided by the National Science Foundation.

About the Author

Dian Schaffhauser is a senior contributing editor for 1105 Media's education publications THE Journal, Campus Technology and Spaces4Learning. She can be reached at [email protected] or on Twitter @schaffhauser.