A doctoral researcher examines the influence of the
wired world on young lives.
“I FELT THAT I WAS MISSING SOMETHING IN MY DAY TO DAY LIFE, with the people I interacted with,” says Naomi Bergen. The 15-year-old considers her words carefully and talks about her experience at a Victoria middle school and how she went from feeling ostracized by schoolmates to being accepted by people she’s met online. “I was looking for a connection, but wasn’t sure how to find that connection. And then I started searching and found what I feel that I need in my life. It’s difficult to express yourself in the mainstream and still be accepted.”
Internet communication tools, like social networking sites, have raised concern about their potential impact on young people. But such concern typically doesn’t consider the perspectives of the youth actually using the technology, according to Mechthild Maczewski, PhD ’07, whose interdisciplinary research (in Computer Science and Child and Youth Care) addresses the Internet and its everyday role in young lives.
Maczewski, a former social worker, says the Internet is an important part of the interaction and communication that are vital to adolescent self-identity. “You have to understand how it matters to young people, their experience, what it means to them,” she says. “So then you can gauge where they are coming from and what they are getting out of it.”
Maczewski has two young children, both of whom were born during her PhD work. Being at home with her first baby dramatically altered the shape of the new mom’s social networks; electronic communication took on new meaning as it offered alternative avenues for interaction. And her second maternity leave coincided with the explosion of blogs and networking Web sites. When she returned to her research she found that the whole terrain had shifted and it no longer made sense to separate technology and youths’ online experiences.
On the face of it, Maczewski’s two homes on campus—the new Engineering/Computer Science building and the School of Child and Youth Care—may seem like academic worlds apart. But she says the more interesting and compelling insights arose from connections she found between the two disciplines. “Youth are positioned within their family, community, peers, their school—they have relations there, a whole network of relations and technology affords connections and relations, so it has an impact on their sense of self.”
Since self-identity comes from dynamic relationships whether they’re Web-based or not, she argues, parents and academics need to regard the Internet as an integral part of adolescent life. “Technology is completely embedded in their daily lives.”
Among most of the young people she encountered in her research, Maczewski found that online relationships are not alternatives to, but extensions of already-established high school friendships. Maczewski says the key is in how the Internet’s influence changes from one person to the next.
Prof. Marie Hoskins, Maczewski’s supervisor in Child and Youth Care says Maczewski’s research has helped other academics—and parents—approach the Internet in a more holistic way. “The question,” Hoskins says, “is how does this particular technology extend the health and well-being of a child, and how does it restrict or inhibit well-being?”
For young Naomi Bergen, dusting doughnut crumbs off the table, the answer is clear. “I met a lot of people (online) who have become good friends in my life. I’d be unable to express my opinions on a lot of things that are very real to me. If I didn’t have that group of people then I’d probably be a lot less happy than I am.”