The rapid diffusion of technology through all areas of life has revolutionized the traditional setting for social participation. This is particularly true for those branded Generation Z, who consider a world of smartphones, iPads and high-speed wireless broadband as a necessity, removed from the restrictions of a landline or a traditional Internet connection.
For adolescents today, "peer socialization, flirting, gossiping, relationship-building, and 'hanging out' all takes place online" (Gray & Christiansen, 2010). In particular, social networking sites possess unique, transformational traits as communication platforms that are designed to enable the sharing of personal information with others through photos, 'likes', and reflections via 'tweets' and 'status updates'. A qualitative study was conducted utilizing a phenomenological approach to explore adolescents' experiences of online social participation. The findings explored were collected through three focus groups. The study underscores the value of unravelling the characteristics of the Internet as a social context for adolescent development which, like other social environments, can be evaluated in terms of its limitations and opportunities.
The positive effects of the Internet on broadening social circles and maintaining existing connections arose as a key theme from the data. According to the participants, socializing, event organization, gossiping, fighting and 'hanging out' all takes place in the social platforms provided through the Internet. The findings suggest that the Internet has depersonalized the process of interpersonal communication making it more acceptable to converse with individuals who may not belong in your offline social circle. This form of socialization represents a modern change in the processes by which relationships are initiated and constructed.
Sweeney (1999) proposed that "the Internet's greatest asset to teendom, may be the capacity to slip out of personalities, the ability to try on identities; the adolescent equivalent of playing dress-up in the attic". The theme 'Mirror Mirror on my Facebook Wall' explored the themes of identity experimentation and construction. The participants highlighted the opportunities available online to continuously recreate and construct ones identity. It appears that this generation is developing in a 'mirrored' world where there is a continual flow of representations of self. Findings report the participant's self-conscious development from an earlier age as they explored possible selves in online profiles, avatars and virtual worlds. It is clear that this online world of invention and ingenuity can allow youths to explore and discard identities; to mature pre-existing qualities and to eventually blend the virtual and actual self.
Additionally, findings from the research validate the importance of positive feedback and social acceptance during adolescence as "it is the way you create your profile and what you upload that impacts a person's view of you" (*Sarah). The participant's responses suggest that online social approval and validation can have direct implications on adolescents' sense of self-worth, identity and confidence. Participants described their enhanced social self- esteem through positive peer feedback via online comments and 'likes' which reiterates their desire to ultimately seek social validation.
Research has highlighted that the main threat to adolescents online today are risks from each other, dangers of improper use, sharing personal information, or posting fabricated information about themselves or peers. The topic of privacy and fabrication of information arose as a topic in the focus groups whereby participants discussed the implications of online labeling on offline social status. One adolescent noted how "it is so annoying when a terrible picture is taken of you and uploaded, it will always end up on Facebook" (*Jade). Unfortunately, Twitter @mentions, Facebook wall posts and the inbox of online private messages can include malicious remarks that may not be voiced without the protective shield of the laptop screen and can be far more vicious than physical punches.
The theme of 'Living Life in a Virtual Panopticon' emphasized the participant's awareness of Facebook's permanent visibility which enables a process of constant scrutiny. Findings from the study uncovered the participant's assertion of social norms in an effort to delineate online regulations and socially appropriate behaviors. The media has often presented these online social communities as subversive, unregulated environments where youths can have a free for all. Such discussions on the evils of unsupervised online access appear to question the ability of adolescents to self-regulate in a 'free range' parenting environment. However, findings from the study suggest that adolescents have developed their own online social code of conduct which contains clearly defined social norms and acceptable and unacceptable behaviors.
Unfortunately, the negative impact of online social participation was explored in the theme titled 'You Can Logout Anytime You Like, But You Can Never Leave'. The findings suggest that the pressure of constantly being connected has resulted in the participants desire to unplug. During a focus group with the older adolescent girls, the phrase 'FOMO' which stands for 'fear of missing out' was utilized to label their need to be constantly up-to-date and socially informed. Although aware of this need, the participants showcased passivity to regulating their participation patterns and modifying their habitual behaviors.
Given the rapidly evolving nature of Internet use, it is difficult to make any definite hypotheses regarding such complex themes, rather, it is expected that the findings discussed will provide evidence of that complexity. For adolescents today, this global online village may be "an exciting yet relatively safe opportunity to conduct the social psychological task of adolescence - to construct, experiment, and present a reflexive project of the self in a social context".
Jessica Kennedy won the Social Sciences category as part of the 2013 Undergraduate Awards. She graduated with a BSc in Occupational Therapy from University College Cork, in Ireland, in 2013. This blog post is a shortened version of her winning research essay on the intersection between adolescent interaction and technology, particularly the shift that has occurred from offline to online social participation. For this blog, Jessica conducted group research among adolescents analyzing their online behavior and how they regard online platforms.