Primary Sources: Technology in the Lives of Young People

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A young person looking at images from recent media.

Cell phones, social networking websites and other new forms of media are indispensable communication tools for many young people. Recent research delves into how young people use digital devices, and the implications these trends have for adolescent health.

(Publications discussed here do not necessarily reflect the views of NCFY, FYSB or the Administration for Children and Families.)

Over the past five years, mobile and online media use has exploded among young people, particularly 11- to 14-year-olds and African Americans and Hispanics, say the authors of the Kaiser Family Foundation’s “Generation M2: Media in the Lives of 8-18 Year Olds,” published in January. Involving more than 2,000 children and adolescents from across the country, the study (a follow up to studies in 1999 and 2004) provides a comprehensive look at media use among American youth. The authors track changes over time in the use of computers, movies, music, print, TV, cell phones and video games from childhood through the transitional “tween” period and into the teenage years. Among their findings:

  • Heavy media users are more likely to have lower grades and lower levels of personal contentment than their peers.

  • Children whose parents limit their use of media spend less time with media than do their peers.

  • Despite the popular perception that TV, video games and computers are spawning a nation of couch potatoes, youth with varying media habits have about the same levels of physical activity.

Stories about adolescents and “sexting” are all over the news, but how many teens actually use their cell phones to exchange sexual messages and images? “Teens and Sexting: How and Why Minor Teens are Sending Sexually Suggestive Nude or Nearly Nude Images via Text Messaging,” published in December by Pew Research Center’s Internet & American Life Project, presents the results of a national survey of 12- to 17-year-olds. The authors found that

  • Only 4 percent of young people who own a cell phone have sent sexually suggestive nude or nearly nude images of themselves in a text message. But youth who pay their own phone bills are much more likely to sext. Seventeen percent of them send suggestive images, compared to just 3 percent of teens who do not pay for their cell phones, or only pay for a portion of the cost.

  • Fifteen percent of those who own a cell phone say they have received inappropriate images of someone they know in a text message.

While many lament that sexting and posting provocative messages or photos on social networking sites are growing trends among young people, not everyone views the practices as completely negative. Sexual self-expression is one way teens form their identities, say the authors of “Sex, Sexuality, Sexting, and Sex Ed: Adolescents and the Media” (abstract) in the November 2009 issue of The Prevention Researcher, and the Internet can provide a relatively safe space for experimentation and self-exploration. For instance, posting anonymously on message boards can give lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and questioning youth the freedom to discuss issues they may not feel comfortable discussing with family or friends. Adolescents also use the Web to find sexual health information, the authors say. And while new forms of media may not always provide accurate information, the researchers say, many health educators are finding ways to reach young people online and on their phones.

Go to the NCFY literature database for abstracts of these and other publications. Read NCFY’s Bright Idea article on using text messages to reach teens.

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