Your friends at your fingertips

Dean and psychologist Marion K. Underwood studies the complex lives of tweens and teens in the digital age

Story by Elizabeth Gardner

Despite scary headlines and shocking stories, texts and social media postings by adolescents and young adults are mostly positive or neutral, according to research by Marion K. Underwood, professor of psychological sciences. In 2006, Underwood was among the first to move from surveying kids about electronic communication and social media use to directly viewing and analyzing messages, posts and comments — even those hidden from public.

“Although negative talk, sexting and bad behaviors happen, a lot of what young people are texting and posting on social media is positive,” says Underwood, who collaborated on and was featured in the CNN special report “#Being13: Inside the Secret World of Teens” in 2015. “The percentage of messages that we would consider bad behavior is very low. But in text messages especially, there are a lot of kind, intimate conversations about real problems the kids are facing and friends trying to help problem solve or show support. There is a lot of encouragement.”

This may reassure many parents, as 95% of teens have access to smartphones, 45% report being online constantly, and teens as a whole use text messaging more than any other mode of communication, according to the Pew Research Center.

“They use texting and social media to develop close peer connections, develop romantic relationships, figure out who they are and project who they might want to be to see the peer response,” says Underwood, who also is dean of the College of Health and Human Sciences. “It is completely developmentally normal at 13 or 14 to want to spend a ton of time with your friends. And we all did this at their age too. We just did it offline.”

Seamless connections

Texting and social media use are ubiquitous now, but at the time of the study these media were relatively new and the implications for adolescents and teens were a mystery.

“The BlackBerry project was the first to track and record digital communication at a time when no one thought it was possible to do so,” says Kaveri Subrahmanyam, a professor of psychology at California State University, Los Angeles. “When I first heard about her study, I was amazed. Until then we knew very little regarding youth’s digital communication — who they communicated with, how much and the content of their digital talk.”

Subrahmanyam says the prevailing concern at the time was that online communication occurred with strangers and was unconnected to offline lives, but the results of the BlackBerry project showed that adolescents and teens were communicating among their own social circles and their online and offline lives were connected.

“Young people move seamlessly from online to face-to-face interactions — the only clear line between online and offline interactions is in adults’ minds,” Underwood says. “However, text messaging and social media have the potential to amplify the positive or negative influence of peer interactions more than face-to-face interactions because of the immediate availability of feedback from potentially hundreds of people.”

Despite her generally positive view of social media, Underwood says there are youth vulnerable to distress from the constant communications, and she is concerned about cyberbullying.

“It is not something that has to happen every day to cause distress,” she says. “Even just being the victim of one elaborate episode can have lasting effects.”

Though bullying is overt, it was an interest in subtle mean behaviors that brought Underwood to texting and social media in the first place.

Sneaky mean behaviors

Underwood’s social media research stems from an interest in understanding subtle forms of social aggression she calls “sneaky mean behavior,” which includes malicious gossip, social exclusion and other attempts to hurt someone’s friendships or status.

“You might think from watching ‘Mean Girls’ (the movie) that these behaviors peak in high school, but that’s not true,” she says. “These behaviors actually peak in the late elementary years — and we see no gender differences. It happens as much among boys as girls.

“Some kids do these behaviors a little bit and some do them a lot. Some kids are the victim of it a little bit and some kids are chronically victimized. I wanted to know how these behaviors develop over time.”

As part of a study started in 2003, she had been observing 9-year-old children interact with their parents and friends. After a few years, the group of children began coming into the lab clutching cellphones and desperate to text with their friends, she says.

“I was curious and thought it would be great to be able to check my email when away from my computer, so I bought a smart phone. Then I quickly realized ‘Oh wow, this is my whole social network in my hand.’ And I understood why it appealed so much to the young people I was observing.”

On their turf

Underwood saw texting and social media as inviting venues for social aggression and expanded her study as the cohort, at the time totaling 175 kids, entered ninth grade. She gave the participants free BlackBerry devices and service plans, and — with the participants’ and their parents’ permission — text messages, email and instant messages were archived for four years as the group moved through 12th grade.

“Understanding the hidden world of kids’ digital communication requires actually seeing what they say and do, not just asking them what they do,” she says.

“I thought they would maybe text five times a day. To my great surprise, they were texting constantly. It was very deep, lengthy interactions, Young romantic partners texting through the night.”

Underwood and her collaborators analyzed the data collected from the BlackBerrys, as well as from surveys, interviews and observation. They examined a variety of behaviors including social aggression, cyber victimization, antisocial behavior, prosocial behavior, and internalizing symptoms as predictors of the content of social media communication. Scientific journals including American Psychologist, Developmental Psychology, and Aggressive Behavior have published the findings, and her work continues today. Underwood is currently studying adolescent use of Instagram and “lurking,” or checking social media without posting.

“Dr. Underwood has helped to demystify youth’s digital communication,” Subrahmanyam says. “Her work has been crucial to helping us develop a much better understanding of the content of youth’s digital communication and its relation to well-being.”

Parenting in the digital age
Tips from Marion K. Underwood are available here.

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