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Increasingly, young people are using various forms of technology in the service of communicating with others, and many have noted the possibility of various dire consequences of this phenomenon, including sexting, cyberbullying, online harassment, and Internet addiction. In our own survey of over 300 adolescents, we found that texting and face-to-face communication were considered the most “convenient” forms of communication, while face-to-face communication and phone conversations were perceived as most likely to lead to “feeling understood” and “feeling intimate.” Face-to-face communication and texting were perceived as most likely to result in feeling regret for sharing too much information. By choosing to communicate through technology, many young people, including our patients, can continue to be social and, at the same time, keep a somewhat safer emotional distance.
Listen boy, it's not automatically a guarantee;
To insure yourself, you've got to provide communication constantly.
Billy Joel, Tell Her About It
When I was in college, I wouldn't “text” a girl to ask her out on a date. I would ask her, in person. One human being to another. And when she said “no,” which she always did, I would suffer the humiliation and self-loathing that a young man needs for his, or her, personal growth.
Steve Carell, actor/comedian, commencement speech, Princeton University, 2012
Increasingly, young people are using various forms of technology in the service of communicating with others. Cell phones (used for talking and texting), e-mail (including instant messaging), blogging (e.g., Tumblr and Twitter), and social networking via Internet sites such as Facebook, MySpace, and Google+ (Google Plus) can all be used to share information with others and may at times be preferred to face-to-face talking. A report conducted by the Pew Research Center's Internet & American Life Project in 2011 found that 80% of teenage Internet users between 12 and 17 years of age utilize a social networking site, and that 93% of these users had a Facebook account. According to a media poll conducted in 2009, more than 50% of adolescents log onto their favorite social media site more than once a day, and 22% log on to that site more than 10 times a day. There are myriad changes in communicative patterns wrought by contemporary technology–the Internet, for example, has been said to redefine the process of self-disclosure (Lehavot, cited in Mills, 2008)–and psychologists and other social scientists are just beginning to understand the consequences of these changes for child and adolescent development, socialization patterns, dating, psychopathology, and the utilization and process of psychotherapy.
Many commentators and pundits have written about the supposed dire consequences of social media upon the youth of this generation. Among the phrases used in both the popular and professional press in recent years: “kids lost in cyberspace,” “the antisocial effects of social media,” “the flight from conversation,” and “Facebook depression.” “Problematic Internet use” (PIU; Caplan, 2003), like “social media syndrome” (O'Keeffe & Clarke-Pearson, 2011; Sloviter, 2011), is said to beset those whose excessive use of online technology results in negative offline consequences. Indeed, a report by the American Pediatric Association directly implicates social networking sites such as Facebook and not the common “storm-and-stress” of adolescence as being responsible for some of the more pronounced clinical symptoms seen by clinical professionals today (O'Keeffe & Clarke-Pearson, 2011; Sloviter, 2011). Depression, sleep deprivation, social anxiety, aggression, Internet addiction, social isolation, and susceptibility to the influence of online advertising have all been noted as potential consequences of adolescent social media usage (Leung, 2002; Valkenburg & Peter, 2007). In addition, clinicians, parents, and other helping professionals (including teachers) have voiced serious concern over the adverse effects of sexting, online sexual solicitation, and online harassment, and yet another concern focuses on the phenomenon of sharing too much personal information through, for example, the use of Facebook's chat feature, a form of instant messaging (IM).
The papers in this issue have, for the most part, focused on the consequences of cyberbullying, sexting, and so-called Internet addiction. According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, cyberbullying—the “willful and repeated harm inflicted through the use of computers, cell phones, and other electronic devices”–is the most common online risk for all teens and can cause severe psychosocial outcomes such as depression, suicide, anxiety, and severe isolation. Patchin and Hinduja (2010) found that students who experienced cyberbullying, as either victim or offender, had significantly lower self-esteem than those with little or no experience with cyberbullying. The Pew Research Center's Internet & American Life Project in 2011 found that 9% of teens between the 12 and 17 years of age have been victims of bullying through text messaging, and that an additional 8% have encountered online bullying through email, a social network site, or IM.
In addition, as texting has become a centerpiece in the communication of many young people, the role of cell phones in the sexual explorations of teens and young adults has become a concern to many. Sexting–defined as creating, sharing, and forwarding of sexually suggestive nude or nearly nude images–has become a prevalent phenomenon in the culture of today's adolescents. A nationally representative telephone survey conducted by the Pew research team in 2009 found that 4% of 12–17-year-olds (and 8% of 17-year-olds) who owned cell phones had sent a sexually suggestive nude or nearly nude image of themselves to another person. In addition, 18% of 14–17-year-olds had received a sexually suggestive nude or nearly nude photo or video of someone they knew on their phones (Pew Internet & American Life Project, 2009).
A 2009 study by The National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy suggests even higher rates when including other forms of social media: 19% of teens aged 13–19 years had sent a sexually suggestive picture or video of themselves via email or cell phone or by another mode, and 31% had received either nude or seminude images of someone else. These rates become more concerning as we take into consideration the rapidity by which the rate of teenage cell phone owners and users have increased and the added capabilities of the cell phones as technology advances. Moreover, one of the findings of the qualitative study that followed the Pew Internet survey revealed that sexting culture puts considerable pressure on teenagers to join in this activity.
Still, as both Essig and Levy-Warren (this issue) wisely point out, it may well be the case that the dangers of these new forms of communication are somewhat overstated and are in fact no more or less virulent than other technological innovations of the past. Consistent with this perspective, researchers have begun to consider the possibility that at least to some teenagers, that which adults label as “cyberbullying” may be experienced more along the lines of “drama” (Klass, 2012). It is also instructive to remember there was considerable concern when the telephone was introduced in the early 20th century: “It was going to bring down our society…men would be calling women and making lascivious comments, and women would be so vulnerable, and we'd never have civilized conversation again” (Moreno, cited in Klass, 2012, p. D5).
Furthermore, while it seems evident that technologically mediated communication (TMC) must lose “something in the translation,” i.e., that it cannot be as intimate or informative as face-to-face communication, there is evidence to indicate that there are, in fact, advantages to these forms of communication. That is, the very distance, disembodiment, and, at times, anonymity afforded by these modes of communication can, for some people at least some of the time, provide a measure of safety and immediacy that may facilitate the frequency, breadth, and depth of interpersonal disclosures. The experience of closeness can occur in the sparsest of technologies (e.g., text messages) and the right choice of words, even absent tonal quality and body language, can convey powerful and effective interpersonal messages. Moreover, there is emerging evidence about the advantages of “ambient awareness,” the nearly incessant, small-scale online contact afforded by current technologies (Thompson, 2008). One can, for example, become far more aware of and sensitive to the daily rhythms of their friends’ lives.
Certainly the rapidity with which TMC has been adopted by children and young adults in this new millennium is putative evidence of its influence and possibilities. For those who have been “born digital,” technology may be experienced not as a means of avoiding intimacy with others but rather as providing endless opportunities for connection. One example, 43% of teenagers surveyed reported that they use IMing to express something they wouldn't say in person (Time, 2007). Moreover, according to a study by the MacArthur Foundation (Lewin, 2008): “While it may look as though kids are wasting a lot of time hanging out with new media, whether it's on MySpace or sending instant messages…they're [also] learning how to get along with others, how to manage a public identity, how to create a home page” (p. A20). Furthermore, according to this study, teens use new media to initiate new relationships.
But there's still so much we do not yet know about the uses or misuses of new technologies. Among other limitations of most studies of these phenomena, none have distinguished among the multiple forms of TMC; that is, none have compared the ways in which different technologies are used by youth. Thus, my research team at Teachers College (Columbia University) has begun to investigate the ways and extent to which different forms of TMC serve different purposes for older children and adolescents. We surveyed over 500 people, though the results we report below are based solely on those (N = 334) who are aged 25 years or younger. Essentially, we asked our respondents to compare different forms of technology in terms of their ease of communication, ability to communicate certain types of information, and “emotional consequences” (i.e., tendency to lead to specific emotional states). The following types of communication were included: phone (talking), phone (texting), e-mailing, IMing, using Twitter, and using social networking sites (e.g., Facebook); we also included “face-to-face” communication to compare this “old-fashioned” means of communicating with newer forms.
Our respondents reported that texting and face-to-face communication were the most “convenient” forms of communication (both with means over 6.0 on a 7-point Likert scale, ranging from 1 (not at all) to 7 (to a great extent), with “talking on the phone” rated slightly lower (mean [M] = 5.6); Twitter was the lowest-ranked choice on this item (M = 2.4). Similar results were obtained for items reflecting the likelihood of feeling “understood” and the likelihood of feeling “intimate,” with face-to-face and phone conversations the highest rated forms of communication and Twitter the lowest rated. When asked, “How likely are you to feel insincere or phony” when using each of these forms of communication, our sample of adolescents and young adults gave their highest ratings to social networking sites (M = 4.6) and texting (4.3) and their lowest ratings to face-to-face communication (M = 2.2), talking on the phone (M = 2.3), and IMing (M = 2.3). Furthermore, on average, these young people felt that, among all these forms of communication, they most often use text messages and social media sites like Facebook to “avoid more uncomfortable face-to-face communication” (M = 5.13 and M = 5.20, respectively). These results suggest that contemporary youth have more favorable views of face-to-face and phone conversations and more realistic perspectives on the limitations of technological communication than most adults, especially parents of children and adolescents, might imagine.
On the other hand, when asked to evaluate the likelihood of feeling regret for sharing too much information in using these various forms of communication, our respondents rated face-to-face and texting most highly (means of 5.1 and 3.5, respectively) and Twitter (M = 2.1) the lowest among these media. Although regrets about oversharing may be somewhat related to convenience of use (i.e., how convenient it is to impulsively share information by texting, for example), this is unlikely to be the only explanation for these results. Our sense is that regrets about oversharing are also more likely when young people use forms of communication that make them feel most exposed. The intimacy of face-to-face talks may make these talks feel exposing: Even if you do not want to share information, it may be written on your face and therefore visible, or in response to a direct question you may feel compelled to share information that you later regret. By comparison, technologies like cell phones allow young people to share certain pieces of information while otherwise staying hidden from view.
Do these young people feel that they are more likely to use one of these forms of communication more than another in sharing certain details of their lives? For the most part, whether it involves telling a close friend about “a fight with a significant person in your life,” “sharing a positive experience,” “telling a secret,” or asking for “advice on a problem,” face-to-face talking and cell phone talking had the two highest means, whereas e-mail and Twitter received the lowest endorsements. Texting and posting on social media sites like Facebook tended to be in the middle range of ratings for these items. The one small deviation from this pattern was for the item, “telling a best friend about ordinary life details,” wherein the two highest scores were for face-to-face communication and texting. Notably, both face-to-face and cell phone talking allow users to note subtle changes in tone of voice or facial expressions that communicate feelings and emotion, whereas text messages and sites like Facebook (emoticons aside) do not. It is perhaps heartening that young people continue to use, and even generally prefer to use, those means of communication (face-to-face and phone calling) that best allow communication of significant or complex feelings and emotions when sharing more private, intimate information.
Our findings also indicate that technology companies have created convenient and appealing ways for young people to communicate information without a great deal of emotion. While young people in general may find the lack of emotional communication limiting (especially when truly personal information is being shared), some may prefer these newer forms of technology because they allow a great deal of information to flow freely while limiting emotional stimuli to a trickle. By contrast, face-to-face communication may barrage young people with emotional stimuli, including subtle or hard-to-read facial expressions, tones of voice, and social cues, all of which may be misperceived as criticism and rejection, feel too intimate, or leave the individual feeling personally or socially inadequate. By choosing to communicate through technology, many young people, including our patients, can continue to be social while at the same time keeping a somewhat safer emotional distance. Ideally, electronic communication allows young people to have more time to think about what they want to say; they can act out by sneering or yelling profanities without endangering their social relationships or personal reputation.
Nevertheless, electronic communication may also feel stressful because it is essentially incessant, and because norms governing its use often include the requirement to return a message (or respond to a Facebook post) virtually immediately. Furthermore, it is hard for young people, in fact hard for everyone, to “backtrack” when an electronic social communication goes awry and someone's feelings get hurt—at times, terribly hurt. “Ruptures in the relationship” (Safran & Muran, 2011) may be more difficult to repair in many forms of e-communication. As Aaron Sorkin observed in his movie The Social Network, the Internet can be especially dangerous because an expression of a conflict or problem is “written in ink.” There are no expiration dates for Internet postings, so the impulsive judgments of our teenage patients may well follow them into adulthood. In this regard, a colleague's patient was told online by a friend-of-a-friend (i.e., a stranger to the patient) that he was “so weird,” which led the patient to respond by posting physically threatening statements that he only later took down after strong encouragement from his therapist.
The results of our study and others also indicate that, despite notable exceptions (e.g., postings about depression or even suicidal feelings), young people tend to keep their social interactions on sites like Facebook superficially positive. As a consequence, older children and adolescents—especially those troubled individuals who become our patients–often use social media sites to compare themselves to their seemingly successful peers. They may focus on all the positive experiences and accomplishments others are posting, including how many “likes” others are getting and, as a result, feel increasingly like outcasts or “not good enough.” In addition, adolescents and young adults may satisfy their need for frequent boosts to their self-image by sharing status updates on their accomplishments, posting revealing pictures of their bodies, and otherwise expending a great deal of mental energy trying to convince themselves and others that “all is well.” Although they may be temporarily comforted by receiving “likes” for a skin-deep or false persona, young people—including our patients–may ultimately feel quite uneasy and even disturbed by the incipient awareness that they are being rewarded with “likes” for keeping their true selves, including their pain, hidden and unheard.
Despite the ubiquity of technologically mediated communication in the lives of young people, despite its significance in the development of identity and personal relationships, and despite its potential for creating or exacerbating multiple psychosocial problems, it remains unclear as to how much of this landscape is being introduced into psychotherapy sessions. We believe that therapists working with children and adolescents should be pursuing these important new lines of inquiry. But do our young patients trust that we can understand and accept these critical parts of their lives? In fact, how much of their online experiences young patients share with their therapists is the focus of our lab's next series of studies.