New study highligts benefits of connecting with youth through technology

Screen Shot 2015-01-26 at 12.59.01 PMby Tim Shea, Charlottesville Tomorrow

While some family members and educators fear the potential dangers that can come with teens navigating the digital world, one researcher has found that the proliferation of personal devices in the hands of teens might not be so bad.

On Friday, Candice Odgers, director of the Center for Child and Family Policy at Duke University, delivered a lecture titled “Seven Fears and Countless Opportunities for Adolescents in the Digital World” during a program hosted by Youth-Nex, a University of Virginia center promoting effective youth development.

“Navigating and being involved with media is one of the major activities of adolescents these days, and it’s part of their social world in the sense that it’s not separate from their friendships in person,” said Patrick Tolan, director of Youth-Nex.

To conduct her study, Odgers gave cellphones to 150 California youth between ages 12 and 15, then monitored them by texting them short survey questions three times per day for 30 days.

The study’s initial goal was the desire to know how day-to-day stressors — rather than major traumas — affect youth behavior. Significant traumas, Odgers noted, receive a lot of attention among researchers, whereas the effect that the more minor, consistent stressors have on children receives less attention.

“It might be that the daily experiences … are as important as or more important than the traumatic events,” she said. “We think it’s important to put that part back into the equation.”

The Duke professor’s study found that the California children showed changes in sleep patterns and their behavior — the students also were outfitted with smart watches — when exposed to violence, bullying or a conflict with a teacher or parent.

“Technology isn’t all bad,” Yu said.

“There are many ways that we can

use technology to benefit our

understanding of our youth.”

Another observation was that she didn’t have to offer incentives to get children to respond. The study had a 90 percent participation rate.

“We were really just using mobile phones as a tool at first to capture real-time information about what they were doing and who they were with,” Odgers said.

After tracking phone usage, speaking with parents, and monitoring how the media covers teen digital behavior, Odgers found that seven common fears about teens in the digital world arose:

  • » concern for the teens’ personal safety;
  • » worry over bullying;
  • » if constant connectivity keeps teens from being present in real life;
  • » if teens are pretending to be other people online;
  • » the digital divide between parents and their children;
  • » if constant multi-tasking impairs cognition; and
  • » if mobile devices negatively affect sleep.

“Most of these fears, when we actually went in and evaluated them, don’t turn out to be fears at all,” Odgers said. She cited, for example, that a strong parent-child relationship is not diminished by time spent online, and in fact can be strengthened by the parent communicating with the child through the device.

From a research perspective, Odgers said she thinks the presence of mobile devices will make it easier to gather information from youth.

“Where we would traditionally go into a classroom with a pen and paper and ask kids a bunch of information about what they did six months ago, now we can gather information about the kids through their phones and communicate with them and kind of open up the lines of communication with kids,” Odgers said.

However, increased online exposure also raises questions.

“What does it mean to have every moment of your life captured?” Odgers asked. “There’s a huge digital archive, and we just don’t know what effect that will have on employment or school entry.”

Haley Johnson, a graduate student studying educational psychology at UVa’s Curry School of Education, said that she appreciated the study’s design.

“The methodology of using cellphones to collect data is interesting and something that I would find useful,” Johnson said. “And also thinking about how technology and cellphones are interacting in youths’ lives and how that is making an impact in different realms, from cognitive to social to emotional.”

Mark Yu, also an educational psychology graduate student, saw the potential for relationship-building.

“I’m interested in being able to connect the youth experiences with the parent experiences,” Yu said. “And technology isn’t all bad. There are many ways that we can use technology to benefit our understanding of our youth.”

Locally, Albemarle County Public Schools sees the issue as developing responsible digital citizens.

“The Internet opens up far-reaching pathways for a level of learning not previously possible for any generation,” said Phil Giaramita, spokesman for Albemarle’s schools. “This learning extends from how to be a responsible citizen to include how to be a responsible digital citizen.”

“Children need to understand the rewards of these new capabilities but also to know and avoid their risks,” he added, noting that the division’s teachers are given resources to help guide student behavior. “That’s now an essential part of instruction.”

According to Maria Lewis, coordinator of technology integration and instructional media for Charlottesville City Schools, the division’s teachers are always reinforcing positive online behavior.

“Lessons focused on digital citizenship are taught iteratively throughout the school year,” Lewis said. “We ask students to pause and consider if the information is true, helpful, inspiring, necessary and kind (THINK) prior to posting information online.”

As technology continues to develop, Odgers said it’s important for adults to stay involved because the changes happen fast.

“Parents are trying to catch up and researchers are trying to catch up and understand exactly what it means to be born digital,” Odgers said.

Additionally, Tolan, the director of Youth-Nex, stressed the importance of teaching future educators to see the world through their young students’ eyes, as well as to embrace technology in learning.

“We need to get more comfortable with the idea of media being a natural part of life rather than something you do that is separate from your social engagement, your personal affiliation with people or your learning experience,” he said.