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Online Time Fosters Youngsters' Social Interactions, Civic Involvement

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March 14, 2006 | by Wendy Leopold

EVANSTON, Ill. --- Parents often fear that their children are spending too much time on the Internet and, as a result, are losing a sense of the importance of social interaction, civic involvement and participation in social communities. A Northwestern University researcher, who for seven years has been studying a remarkable online community of 3,000 youngsters aged 10 to 16, tells parents otherwise.

“The involvement of youngsters in online communities today is qualitatively, not quantitatively, different than it was a generation ago,” says Justine Cassell, professor of communication studies and director of the Program on Technology and Social Behavior at Northwestern. Cassell presented her findings recently at the annual meeting of the Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) in St. Louis.

“For the young technology enthusiast, involvement might not mean attending meetings in the school gymnasium or sitting in a circle of people around an outdoor campfire,” Cassell says. “Young people may well be socially engaged while seated in the glow of their computer screens and reaching out to others online.”

Cassell, Northwestern doctoral student David Huffaker and Stanford’s Dona Tversky studied the online group of young people representing 139 countries and with different social backgrounds   and levels of computer proficiency. “We found that these young online community members demonstrated high levels of civic involvement. They care passionately about their communities and the world,” Cassell says.

Cassell is studying the characteristics of youth leadership and leadership styles by analyzing data resulting from a 1998 online junior summit that she directed. Without ever seeing one another face-to-face in a community almost entirely free of adult intervention, these children traded

messages in an online forum about ways in which technology can be used to improve life for the world’s young citizens. They then elected leaders to represent their community in a real world meeting with political and industry leaders from around the world that took place in Boston.

“While other studies have reported that leadership in the online world is similar to leadership in the offline world, those studies have been based on the behaviors of adult technology users,” says Cassell. “We find that young leaders using technology do not necessarily reproduce adult styles of leadership.”

Cassell and her colleagues also found that they could predict who was going to be elected a leader after analyzing the kinds of online language the youngsters used. Whereas in the real world “leader language” has been found to contain many references to the leader’s ideas and abilities, this was not the case in the online youth community.

The researchers discovered that the leaders in Cassell’s online community were more likely to synthesize the ideas of others and to be highly socially adept -- characteristics more typical of women than men in studies of adult leaders. Not surprisingly, more girls than boys were elected to leadership positions.

Cassell also found that online community members appear to place high value on collaboration, social ability and persuasiveness. In adult studies those attributes are found to exist more frequently in women than in men.

Cassell’s work on youth leadership online is supported by the National Science Foundation.

Topics: Research