Interpersonal Connection, Identity,
Patricia M. Greenfield
Elisheva F. Gross
When the New York Times Magazine looked to teenagers to herald the dawn of the 21st century, it found them online. In an article in the magazine's millennium issue, journalist Camille Sweeney (1999) marveled at the nature, speed, and sheer abundance of communication among teenagers whom she had observed in chat rooms and message boards throughout AOL and the Web. In the ensuing years, teenagers' use of the Internet (and in particular instant messaging [IMing]) has grown to the point at which today's youth are referred to as the Internet (Tapscott, 1998) and IM generation (Pew, 2001).
Though about 75% of young people in the United States are estimated to have Internet access, there is very little research on aspects of their Internet use, such as “its nature and quality, its social conditions, cultural practices, and personal meanings” (Livingstone, 2003, p. 159). The unique social and communicative environment of the Internet gives rise to intriguing research questions about its use among youth: How do teenagers typically spend their time online? How important is communication in this total picture, and by what means do adolescents communicate on the Internet? What is the nature of the online culture that teenagers are constructing together? These broad issues also give rise to more specific questions: Do teenagers use the disembodied and faceless nature that often characterizes Internet communication to experiment with identities, or do they compensate for this disembodiment by developing new ways to express identity in the online medium? Do teenagers take advantage of the outreach capabilities of the Internet to seek social support and romance and discuss critical but difficult issues like race, sex, and illness with strangers, or do they intensify existing relations by communicating mostly with friends and family? In this chapter, we begin to answer these questions through ongoing research at the Children's Digital Media Center (CDMC) at UCLA.
We begin by reviewing research by Gross (2004) that, together with recent findings from national surveys on Internet use (e.g., Pew Internet and American Life Project, 2001), provides a context for closer examination of the nature of adolescent online communication. Then we review research on the nature, extent, and function of teens' online pretending. In the next section, we examine and describe the online culture constructed by participants in teen chat rooms. Here we review two studies that examine how participants in online teen chat rooms address critical developmental issues, such as identity, sexuality, partner selection, peer relations, and race (Subrahmanyam, Greenfield, &