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Teens Seek Freedom Online

The Internet is a maze of dangers for kids, right? Cyberstalkers, bullies, online predators and callous jerks lurk, waiting to lure your child to a dark alleyway or call her names on Facebook. Video games and chat programs seduce kids away from homework while viruses and porn throng the shadows.

That’s how it’s often portrayed, but that’s not how Danah Boyd sees it.

She knows a thing or two about the Internet, too. Boyd is a researcher at Microsoft and a professor at NYU. She’s also something of a rock star in the world of social media research, where she studies how young people use the Internet.

It’s not as bleak as it seems, she says.

In fact, the Internet can be good for kids. 

Boyd sees children and teens seeking out community and connection online in ways that are no longer available to them in real life. Kids need to roam, she says. They need to find their friends and form relationships and explore. If they can’t do it on their bikes, they’ll do it on their iPads.

From the New York Times:

Children today, she said, are reacting online largely to social changes that have taken place off line.

“Children’s ability to roam has basically been destroyed,” Dr. Boyd said in her office at Microsoft, where a view of the Boston skyline is echoed in the towers of books on her shelves, desk and floor. “Letting your child out to bike around the neighborhood is seen as terrifying now, even though by all measures, life is safer for kids today.”

Children naturally congregate on social media sites for the relatively unsupervised conversations, flirtations, immature humor and social exchanges that are the normal stuff of teenage hanging-out, she said.

 

It’s a fascinating idea, that kids are replacing their free-range reality with a virtual pasture they can roam in.

From where I’m sitting, there’s no important difference between online relationships and face to face ones. My teenage stepson uses Facebook all the time, and it’s one of the ways I keep in touch with him. My younger kids aren’t online yet, but I’m sure the day will come when they have friends they only know via the Internet. Just like I do.

They’ll use social media to make new friends and keep in touch with their real life connections. They’ll probably do things I wish they hadn’t, like share their passwords with their boyfriends. They’ll probably do things that are awesome, like share their art and music with the world through their own blogs.

Whatever they do, I’m sure they’ll be savvy net citizens. I don’t worry about them on the Internet any more than I worry about them walking down the street. Less. Online, they can’t be hit by a car or struck by lightning.

What do you think? Are kids taking their need for freedom and sublimating it into computer connections? Are online relationships really good for teens?

Photo: San Jose Library

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