August 16th, 2011

Could Those Hours Online Be Making Kids Nicer?

The Wall Street Journal

In the flurry of messages college students post on one another’s Facebook pages, social scientists see something larger at work: Time spent online may be helping people learn to be more empathetic and make more friends in real life.

A growing body of research indicates the widespread use of texting, emailing or posting on social-media sites has social benefits. The studies fly in the face of the image of a child sitting lonely in front of a computer, or being bullied online.

Several recent studies have found that digital communication can lead to more or better friendships online and off, greater honesty, faster intimacy in relationships and an increased sense of belonging, in addition to practical social benefits like an expanded circle for networking.

On the whole, technology appears to enhance real-world relationships, says Nancy Baym, a communication-studies professor at the University of Kansas in Lawrence. One reason: People use digital communication primarily to interact with people they are closest to offline, not with strangers. The communication tightens the bonds between them, Dr. Baym and her colleagues found in a study they published in the journal Information, Communication & Society in 2009.

Some studies show technology-driven communication may be particularly helpful for people who are shy or anxious in social settings. These researchers concentrated on the psychological impact of intensive social online communication, not the role it plays in mass gatherings.

In a study of New York University students who described themselves as either socially anxious or non-anxious, participants were randomly assigned to interact in groups of three, either in-person or through an Internet chat room. Anxious students reported greater shyness and discomfort than non-anxious students in face-to-face groups. In the chat room, however, they said they felt significantly less shy, more comfortable and better accepted by their peers.

In a follow-up study, researchers randomly assigned high- and low-anxiety students to groups of four to interact in an online chat room or face to face. Socially anxious participants were more likely to make decisions and lead the group when they were in the chat room than when face-to-face with others. Other group members said they found the anxious participants more likeable and extroverted when the interaction occurred online. In the face-to-face situation, the non-anxious participants were the ones seen as leaders.

Frequent communication online could serve as practice for in-person social interactions, says Larry Rosen, a psychology professor at California State University, Dominguez Hills.

Dr. Rosen and his team were especially curious about empathy, because it is so frequently communicated nonverbally via facial expressions and body language. The researchers informally scanned dozens of Facebook profiles, looking for comments that individuals posted and the responses to them that appeared to show understanding of the original posters’ feelings, such as supportive messages to a friend who said her mother was having surgery the next day.

These messages suggested that empathy could indeed be recognized and communicated through written, online communication. This inspired the researchers to investigate how this related to the expression of empathy in real life.

In a study presented earlier this month at the annual American Psychological Association conference in Washington, D.C., they asked 1,283 people aged 18 to 30 through a series of questionnaires how much time they spent online, and the degree to which they felt empathetic toward offline and online friends. For instance, participants were asked to rate on a five-point scale how well they could understand a friend’s happiness when the friend did something well. They were then asked the same questions regarding friends with whom a majority of their communication was done online through social networking or email.

Based on participants’ self-reports, the researchers found users expressed a significant amount of empathy online, and that the more time college students spent on Facebook, the more empathy they expressed online and in real life.

As with any novel research, these preliminary findings need to be repeated in future studies, particularly since self-reported data can be skewed if participants inaccurately recall or misreport their feelings.

Digital communication also appears to bolster individuals’ sense of community and group identity, says Nicole Ellison, a professor in telecommunications, information studies and media at Michigan State University in East Lansing. Students reporting low self esteem who actively used Facebook were more likely to say they felt a part of the Michigan State community than low self-esteem individuals who didn’t use Facebook as intensely, Ms. Ellison found in a study published in the Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication in 2007.

And some of the drawbacks of online communication may not be as widespread as feared, researchers are finding. While online bullying is a concern, in-person bullying remains far more prevalent.

In a survey of 3,777 teenagers, nearly 45% reported some bullying in the past year. But of those who said they were bullied, nearly 40% said it had occurred in person. Fewer than 20% said it had occurred—solely or in addition to other bullying methods—online, by phone or by text messaging, says Michele Ybarra, president of nonprofit research group Internet Solutions for Kids Inc., who ran the survey. And two-thirds of kids who say they are bullied online say they don’t find it upsetting, according to a new study by Dr. Ybarra that she expects will be published soon in the journal Pediatrics.

And young people are still far more likely to see sexual content or violence on television than online, she says.

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