Adolescents on the Net: Internet Use and Well-Being

Article excerpt

Among adolescents, the Internet has become indispensable for instrumental purposes such as school work and information gathering, as well as for communication purposes. The communication applications of the Internet, such as e-mail, instant messaging, blogs, and chat rooms have entrenched themselves in the lives of adolescents (Boneva, Quinn, Kraut, Kiesler, & Shklovski, 2006; Craig, 2003; Gross, 2004; Schiano, Chen, Ginsberg, Gretarsdottir, Huddleston, & Isaacs, 2002) and the Internet has become an important social context in the lives of adolescents today. In fact a national survey of adolescents (1017 years of age) revealed that in the year before they were surveyed, 25% of Internet users had formed casual online friendships and 14% had formed close friendships or even romantic relationships (Wolak, Mitchell, & Finkelhor, 2002). Questions abound as to the impact of online socio-communicative activities on adolescent well-being. The goal of the present study is to examine the relationship between adolescents' online communicative activity and loneliness and perceived social support.

Research on Internet Use and Adolescent Well-Being

Research suggests that adolescents use a variety of Internet applications such as instant messaging, bulletin boards, chat rooms, and blogs to connect with their peers (Boneva et al., 2006; Gross, 2004) and to explore typical adolescent issues such as sexuality, identity, and partner selection (Smahel, Subrahmanyam, & Greenfield, 2005). Given the extent of adolescents' Internet use (Roberts, Foehr, & Rideout, 2005), the concern is that this use displaces activities important for adolescent development such as physical activities and social interactions with peers that occur in face-to-face contexts and over the phone (see Subrahmanyam, Kraut, & Gross, & Greenfield, 2001). The Displacement hypothesis suggests that because time is a finite quantity, time spent on the Internet comes at the expense of other daily activities, in particular those involving face-to-face social interactions (Nie & Hillygus, 2002). In this view, Internet use displaces adolescents' "real interactions" with peers and family, and thus may substitute weak ties for strong ones (Granovetter, 1973; Krackhardt, 1994). Kraut, Patterson, Lundmark, Kiesler, and others (1998) characterize weak ties as relationships that have superficial and easily broken bonds, infrequent contact, and narrow focus. Research suggests that weak ties typically provide less consequential social support than more intimate ties (Krackhardt, 1994; Wellman, 1996). An alternative possibility is that adolescents who are lonely and who mostly have weak ties in their offline lives are drawn to the Internet for the interaction opportunities that it affords.

Some research suggests that greater use of the Internet is associated with declines in adolescents' well-being (Kraut et al., 1998), and with weaker social ties (Kraut et al., 1998; Sanders, Field, Diego, & Kaplan, 2000). Frequent Internet users were more likely to report lower levels of attachment to close friends (Mesch, 2001), and frequency of Internet use was negatively related to adolescents' perception about the quality of family relationships (Mesch, 2003). However, other research has not found a link between adolescents' time online and psychological well-being (e.g., dispositional or daffy well-being, loneliness, depression) (Gross, Juvonen, & Gable, 2002; Wastlund, Norlander, & Archer, 2001) as well as aspects of social networks, such as size of local and distant social circles and amount of face-to-face communication (Kraut, Kiesler, Boneva, Cummings, Helgeson, & Crawford, 2002).

One reason for this conflicting pattern of findings may be that the aforementioned research simply used the time spent online to measure Internet use and did not distinguish between different kinds of use; for instance, e-mailing and chatting with school friends might contribute to well being, surfing the web for information about sports, music, or movies might have no impact on well-being, and chatting with strangers and/or accessing pornographic materials might actually threaten well-being. …