Monday, October 27, 2008

A new way of community?

Maybe as good a place to start with this den of sporadic and unresonable thoughts is with some reflections on articles I came accross in the Journal of Applied Developmental Psychology about how young people use Facebook and other social networking sites. These relate to "Emerging Adults" (young people from about 18 to about 25, or whenever they consider themselves adults!) and look at how online social networking relates to their development at a key time for their formation of identity. Manago et al present findings on "Self-Presentation and gender on MySpace" and found that college students use MySpace to explore their identity, compare themselves with others socially and express idealised parts of the selves they wish to become. Positively, they suggest this is a place they can "try out" identity as they seek who they are and who they want to be; negatively however, there is a lot of social comparison (is it any more than "real life"?) and increased pressure for female sexual objectification.
Another article in the same journal by Subrahmanyam et al looks at socal networking by the same agegroup and found that emerging adults used online networks to strengthen different aspects of their offline connections - not an earthshattering discovery, but a reassuring one it seems to me, if this is the emphasis compared to relationships not extended to the "real world". Additionally, Steinfield et al found that Facebook users with low self-esteem gained more in bridging social capital than peers with higher self-esteem; they suggest that the online nature of the network can help to reduce barriers in social engagement.

Subrahmanyam writes in the issue's editorial (quote edited by me):
"Young people are living life online and in public via these sites...Our reasoning is that because users are creating and co-creating their online environments through processes of social interaction, one would also expect to see them constructing the same developmental issues online as they do in their offline contexts. Research...confirms that important adolescent issues such as sexuality, identity, peer relations, partner selection, and self-worth are played out in a variety of online contexts frequented by teens such as chat rooms instant messaging and bulletin boards...the studies together show how young people are constructing important developmental processes online, in some ways transforming them and in other ways leaving them unchanged."

It is good that researchers are beginning to look into this area, even if it changes so fast that it is very difficult to research, as it has huge implications for youth workers and for the church. Even in the headlines of these research findings, the negative side of online social networking is hard to miss. But, like any aspect of today's culture, we can't pretend it will go away or that we can "protect" young people from it. Perhaps we should be thinking harder about how to do what we should do with any other aspect of culture:
1. equip them to make good decisions in their engagement in this medium
2. harness what is good and postive as a help to them personally and an aid to good ministry and community building.

Easy to say in broad terms like that, but how to do it exactly...?

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