A PDF version of this document if available. You will need Adobe Acrobat.

Download this page (PDF)

Social Dimensions of the
Use of Interactive Technologies by Young People:
A Research Agenda

Report on the Results of a Workshop
held September 17 and 18, 1999

Nancy Willard
Director, Responsible Netizen Project

Center for Advanced Technology in Education
College of Education, University of Oregon

Social Dimensions of the Use of Interactive Technologies by Young People

Report on the Results of a Workshop Held September 17 and 18, 1999

Nancy Willard
Director, Responsible Netizen Project
Center for Advanced Technology in Education, College of Education, University of Oregon

A. Introduction

Interactive and communication technologies are transforming the way we communicate, work, learn, and play. In the United States, most of our young people are growing up in an environment that is saturated with technology - from their first interactive Barney, to video arcades, to the expanding use of computers in their classrooms and bedrooms. These phenomena deserve our social attention, and the attention of our research communities as well.

On September 17 and 18, 1999, a group of researchers and practitioners met in a 2-day workshop to frame a research agenda around issues of the social dimensions of the use of interactive technologies by young people. The participants outlined a recommended research agenda, identified human subjects and ethical issues that are relevant to the recommended research agenda, and proposed strategies that will be helpful in the cultivation of a research community around this research area.

The workshop was funded by a grant from the National Science Foundation. The workshop participants included individuals with backgrounds in education, child development, sociology, psychology, anthropology, computer science, economics, philosophy, and media. The group included both researchers and practitioners. A list of the participants is attached.

This report seeks to capture the results of two days of fruitful, creative, and sometimes wide-ranging, discussions. This is very much an exploratory presentation. It is neither comprehensive, nor definitive. The report's contents do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation or the individual participants. Hopefully, this report will assist in generating further discussion and analysis and lead to the initiation of high quality research to address the questions that are emerging.

B. Background

No longer passive recipients of media, young people using interactive technologies have the ability to interact with others in global digital communities. Young people also have the ability to produce and publish their material. They have access to a wide range of information. Some information and material can be beneficial; some of it is potentially harmful.

Young people are using interactive technologies during the critical time for their social and moral development . As young people grow, they develop an understanding of self in relationship to other people. Their increasing cognitive abilities allow them to take the perspective of others and to understand how their actions produce consequences that can be harmful or beneficial to others. Young people grow in an ever-expanding social environment that includes family, school, and other community organizations. As they interact with others within their social environment, young people gain an understanding of the norms that are expected for their behavior. Parents, teachers, and other significant adults are actively involved in the inculcation of norms and values that are considered acceptable in the social environment. Through this process, young people develop a sense of personal identity and values that guide their decision-making and behavior.

The use of interactive technologies can affect the social and moral development of young people. Their social interactions are not limited to interactions with members of their family, school, and local community. They have the ability to interact with others from many different social and cultural backgrounds, with norms that may differ from those of their family, school, or local community. When interacting with others, young people receive different kinds of feedback in response to their actions. Some feedback may not provide clear, tangible information about the consequences of actions. Young people have the ability to experiment as multiple anonymous personalities and engage in a wide range of virtual experiences that would not normally be possible in their real life environment. They may be accessing information and interacting in technology-based environments that have been established specifically to influence their values and behavior, in ways that may or may not be in accord with their family and community values. With the use of interactive technologies there is an inversion in the power relationship between young people and adults. Young people are often more adept and comfortable in interactive technology environments than are the adults who are significant in their lives. This reduces the potential for adult guidance of these activities. It is unknown how all of these factors, and others, may affect the social and moral development of young people.

Parents, educators, policy-makers, technology designers, and others require greater understanding of the social dimensions of the use of interactive technologies by young people. This understanding will allow for the establishment of policies, strategies, and technology-based environments that will foster the safe, responsible, and beneficial use of interactive technologies by young people.

C. Scope and Content of Research Area

The participants of the workshop sought to outline research questions that will increase our understanding of the social dimensions of the use of interactive technologies by young people. . Researchers in this field are approaching questions and issues from many different perspectives and backgrounds in different academic disciplines. The participants initiated a discussion about the related fields of research and inquiry that can inform this research area and quickly concluded that all fields of research related to human behavior are relevant to this research area. Many more questions and issues of concern can be expected to arise

The research questions that emerged from the workshop clustered into four major topic areas. The topic areas are distinguished by the focal point of the research inquiry. The four topic areas are:

  • The influence of developmental and environmental factors on the behavior of young people when they are using interactive technologies.

  • The effect of the use of interactive technologies by young people on their social and moral development and behavior.

  • The social norms, values, and mechanisms to govern behavior that emerge when young people use these technologies to interact with others.

  • The design of interactive technology environments for young people and strategies to support their beneficial use.

D. Research Questions

The influence of developmental and environmental factors on the behavior of young people when they are using interactive technologies.

The focal point within this topic area is developmental and environmental factors that are external to technology but that may affect how young people use technologies. Developmental factors include indicators of young people's overall social and moral development, such as moral reasoning maturity, empathic disposition, personal identity, perceptions of personal efficacy, and level of personal empowerment. Environmental factors may include family background and parenting styles, social and cultural background, educational environment, peer environment, and gender differences. Inquiry may consider when and how a young person has access to interactive technologies and the standards that are explicit or implicit in such environments.

Examples of research questions within this topic area include:

  • What are the relationships between young people's country of origin, social network, and perceptions of self-efficacy and their social interactions in an online global electronic discussion group?

  • What are the relationships between young people's level, type, and quality of social relationships in their schools and communities and the level, type, and quality of online relationships? How do "social outcasts" in school use the Internet?

  • What developmental and/or environmental factors correlate with involvement in hacking, violent gaming, online hate groups, engagement in sexual exploitation, vulnerability to sexual exploitation, or online addiction?

  • What developmental and/or environmental factors correlate with the use of interactive technologies for positive peer activities or other uses that would be considered beneficial?

  • What is the relationship between young people's empathic disposition and their ability to determine the emotional state of online peers?

  • What is the influence of different cultural backgrounds on the online communication styles and social engagement of young people?

  • How do differences in parenting styles affect the manner in which young people use interactive technologies?

  • What is the impact of school-based character education or other computer ethics education programs on Internet ethical decision-making?

  • What is the effect of gender on uses of interactive technology? What is the effect of gender on social interactions in electronic environments?

  • What are young people's perceptions of technology and the uses of technology? How do these perceptions differ when comparing technology enthusiasts (geeks) with other technology users? How do these perceptions differ in males and females?

  • What is the impact of school or home rules, filtering, and monitoring on the attitudes of young people about potentially harmful sites or activities using the Internet?

The effect of the use of interactive technologies by young people on their social and moral development and behavior.

Research in this area will address the manner in which use of interactive technologies is affecting the social and moral development and behavior of young people. It views these evolving technologies as presenting important challenges and opportunities for young people developing personal and social senses of identity and community.

Examples of kinds of research questions within this topic area include:

  • What is the effect of violent gaming on aggressive behavior?

  • How are the advertising practices on web sites targeted to children affecting their social and moral development?

  • Will social interactions in a world of written interactions lead to differences in how young people interact with each other?

  • How does young people's engagement in the presentation of multiple anonymous personalities affect their development of self-understanding?

  • What kinds of uses of interactive technologies are correlated with increased alienation, aggression, and/or exploitation? What kinds of uses of interactive technologies are correlated with increased self-esteem, self-expression, and social participation?

  • What are the indications and implications of excessive Internet use by young people?

  • Does involvement in social justice-oriented online communities lead to increased constructive engagement in the local community?

  • What is online misbehavior? What are the sources? What is the impact? What are the implications?

  • How do the cultural traits and learning styles of young people who are computer literate differ from those of students who are not computer literate?

  • What are the effects of access on young people from disempowered or Diaspora social communities?

  • How does participation in mixed-age online communities affect the quality and level of communication by young people? Does participation in online discussions provide the opportunity for young people to develop a "public voice" - the ability to speak out on issues of concern to them?

  • What are the effects of "communities of first introduction" on subsequent Internet use and activities?

  • What are the effects of participation in a long-term online community on the development of perceptions of self-efficacy?

  • How do young people's perceptions of their own role and value in society change as they interact with others using technology?

  • What is the impact of young people's use of interactive technologies on family relationships, on relationships with people in positions of authority, or on peer relationships?

  • How does electronic discussion compare to traditional class discussion in respect to distribution, frequency, and incidence of communication and in respect to the attitudes developed towards the participants, teachers, and institution?

  • What is the impact of use of the Internet on young people's concepts of trust and truthfulness?

  • What is the role and impact of human aggression or human kindness in online environments?

  • How do popular media influence the way in which young people construct their notions of personal values and social norms?

  • What are the differences in the perception of computer security concerns between young people who are engaged in hacking and those who have responsibility for managing a school network?

  • What are young people's perceptions of privacy? How do these perceptions affect decision-making when they are asked to disclose private information as a condition of receiving a benefit on a web site or in the course of electronic communication? How do these perceptions change?

  • How are young people's perceptions of the value of intangible property affected by the creation and publication of works involving intangible property?

  • Who are the parties behind the development of web sites or electronic groups that young people are attracted to, what are their philosophies, intentions, or desired outcomes, and what are the resulting impacts on young people?

  • What web site or electronic group attributes attract young people and what are the ethical implications?

  • In what manner are young people using interactive technologies to develop advanced social skills such as organizing events, building social networks, forming consensus, and other leadership skills?

The social norms, values, and mechanisms to govern behavior that emerge when young people use these technologies to interact with others.

New social norms are emerging in online communities created through the use of interactive technologies. Many times the norms are created and enforced by the group itself. Many groups involve members with very different cultural or social backgrounds. Research in this area will address how these norms are developed and enforced and their influence on individual behavior.

Examples of kinds of research addressing this issue include:

  • What are the sources of norms and values in a newly formed electronic group?

  • Are young people developing new values in the face of novel ethical questions or are they seeking to stretch and apply the values they have always had to the new situations?

  • What are the differences in the development of social norms and clues and interaction patterns in different kinds of electronic groups - monitored or unmonitored, sensitive personal issues or non-sensitive issues, small or large, culturally homogeneous or heterogeneous, one generation or mixed generations, etc.?

  • What are the catalysts for achieving Internet "community"?

  • How are language differences and cultural conflicts addressed in electronic groups?

  • What are young people's concepts of sharing, taking, and giving of property in a online environment?

  • What are the mechanisms for self-governing on online communities and how are they enforced by members of the community?

  • What is the evolution of norms and customs of online courting among young people? How does online courting affect issues of trust and personal boundaries?

  • Is there evidence of the emergence of an on-line global youth culture? If so, what are the factors that are contributing to its formation? What are its emerging norms and values?

The design of interactive technology environments for young people and strategies to support their beneficial uses.

Research in this topic area will consider the design of interactive technology environments and strategies to foster socially beneficial outcomes of the use of interactive technologies by young people. Studies of deployed technologies that are either reasonably successful from a social and moral perspective or fall short can provide insight into when and how technology can effectively support young people's social and moral development. This research will provide insight for individuals who are designing or deploying environments for young people or working with young people when they are using the Internet.

  • What value sensitive design standards for technology are necessary to appropriately take into account the issues and needs of young people?

  • How can the principles and theories of social and moral development be applied to the design of technologies for use by young people?

  • What are the trade-offs among competing benefits for young people in the design and use of interactive technologies?

  • How can we empower young people to inform and participate in the development of software, sites, and groups?

  • How can we design and manage software, web sites, or electronic groups that will support young people in the exploration of personal identity and/or social relationships?

  • What tools promote collaboration and cooperative work in distance education classes?

  • What strategies can be used to raise the awareness of young people about the actual or potential consequences of their actions, especially potentially dangerous or harmful actions?

  • What are the most effective strategies to support young people in constructive social engagement in online communities?

  • What pedagogical techniques can best prepare young people to address ethical issues that are presented in the context of the use of interactive technologies?

  • How can new technologies be used to assist young people in the discovery of their personal identity as well as the underlying patterns of thought and behavior that connect the world-wide views proposed by different religions and cultures?

  • How can new technologies support the exploration of self, language, and creativity?

  • How can we create online environments that can be used by groups of people, such as family members, employee groups, student work teams, to explore issues related to group and individual identity and values?

E. Research Methodology and Human Subjects Issues

The workshop participants realized that the Internet provides researchers with an important new research tool. Its use raised the following questions and concerns related to research methodology and human subjects issues. Further analysis of these important issues, including research projects that specifically address them, is recommended.

A helpful resource is a report entitled Ethical and Legal Aspects of Human Subjects Research on the Internet (http://www.aasa.org/spp/dspp/sfrl/projects/intres/mail.htm). This report was developed through a workshop convened by the American Association for the Advancement of Science funded under a contract from the U.S. Office for Protection from Research Risks.

1. Research and Public Perceptions

Concerns were raised about the potential for media and policy-makers' overreaction to information from research on effects of interactive technologies, especially research that addresses young people. There is a high level of interest and concern about children's use of new technologies. A significant amount of the press coverage about children and interactive technologies addresses negative aspects, or potential outcomes . Misinterpretation of research findings - or worse, bad research - can have a detrimental impact on public understanding and policy deliberations . Young people and others may be harmed or inconvenienced if misinterpreted findings become the basis for legislation, policies, or rules.

Researchers understand the need to use multiple methods to examine issues before reaching any firm conclusions, but press, policy-makers, and public are not patient. Researchers also understand the differences between correlation and causation, but this concept is difficult to explain to the public. Individual researchers and the research community as a whole need to be alert to the potential of misinterpretation of research findings and prepared to educate the press and policy-makers about the process of research and the appropriate interpretation of such findings.

2. Data Validity

Participants at the workshop raised a number of concerns that relate to research methodologies and the validity of data. There is a significant amount of anonymity and role playing on the Internet which can provide misleading information about the members of a research population. There is a digital divide both in the United States and the world. The population of Internet users is neither representative of the population of the United States nor the world. This situation leads to several concerns about research methodologies and validity of data. Specific concerns include:

  • Difficulties in obtaining a "random sample," rather than a sample of convenience.
  • Difficulties in controlling for factors other than technology, such as socio-economic status.
  • Identification of subjects and accuracy of input in an environment where there is a significant amount of anonymous role playing, presentation of multiple personalities, adults who pretend to be minors, and other use patterns that tend to confuse identity.

3. Informed Consent

Observation of children who are not specifically identified in a public setting is exempt from Department of Health and Human Services regulations . This regulation may also cover naturalistic observation of online interactions in public discussion forums, such as public mailing lists, newsgroups, and chat rooms. However, standards for what constitutes public or private behavior are changing in the online environment. This is especially the case where online communities have been formed by young people who are discussing personal health issues or other matters of a sensitive nature. Members of such groups do not consider their discussions to be public. Researchers must be sensitive to the expectations, or illusions, of privacy held by members of online communities. There is a need for clearer guidelines about consent when conducting research involving public discussion forums or other public online behavior.

Additional concerns were raised around the process to obtain informed consent. Concerns in this area include:

  • Possible confusion about the identity of subjects and their parents/guardians.

  • Questions about the validity of consent obtained via e-mail.

  • Difficulties in determining when consent is "knowing consent" if the subjects and/or parents/guardians do not really understand the technology.

  • Difficulties in obtaining knowing consent from subjects and parents/guardians in other countries.

4. Human Subjects Risks

The following potential human subjects risks were identified:

  • Ergonomic concerns (physical risk). Ergonomic and repetitive stress concerns will arise if young people are using computers for an extensive period of time and the researcher is responsible for establishing the computer facility.

  • Distress (psychological risk). When researchers are conducting research in an online environment they do not receive the typical visual and oral clues that a young person is experiencing distress or in some manner at risk psychologically. Researchers need to have in-depth understanding of young people's competencies, stages of development, and situations that are likely to cause distress and be extremely sensitive to indicators of potential distress when working with young people in an online environment.

  • Dependencies (psychological risk). Longitudinal research designs, especially those that establish online communities, may lead to the creation of dependencies which may lead to feelings of abandonment by the subjects when the project is over.

  • Failure to recognize potentially harmful consequences (social risk). Social risks may emerge as a consequence of behavior that occurs in an online research environment. Young people participating in online environments may be less sensitive to the potential social risks associated with certain kinds of communication or behavior. For example, a young person may disclose sensitive personal information in an online environment that could result in online or in-person ostracism. A researcher who has established such an environment may need to intervene to protect a young person from potentially harmful consequences of his or her actions. Researchers should also design online communities that operate in a manner that will reduce the potential of social risk.

  • Illegal activities (legal risk). Some uses of interactive technologies by young people involve illegal behavior, such as hacking and copyright infringement. Research designs that are investigating such issues will need to address issues related to the potential of subject disclosure of involvement in such illegal activities.

  • Computerized data (loss of confidentiality and privacy). There are risks associated with collection and retention of confidential data on networked computer systems. The security of such systems may be compromised, revealing confidential data.

  • Invisibility of tracking (loss of confidentiality and privacy). The invisibility of electronic tracking systems raises a concern about privacy. In situations with invisible tracking, subjects can lose their awareness that their actions are being tracked and thus compromise their own privacy.

  • Invasion of privacy (loss of confidentiality and privacy). Naturalistic observation of online "public" behavior may raise concerns about an invasion of privacy if young people are unaware of the researcher's presence and research mission.

5. Institutional Review Boards

Many Institutional Review Boards (IRBs) do not understand research in an Internet environment and can be resistant to such proposals, especially when young people are involved. Additional analysis of the human subjects issues that have been raised and the development of guidelines or standard practices that are considered appropriate in typical research designs will assist researchers and IRBs in ensuring that the risks to young people are adequately addressed.

F. Community of Researchers and Practitioners

Workshop participants discussed ideas for the formation of a community of researchers and practitioners interested in the social dimensions of the use of interactive technologies by young people. Such a community would facilitate:

  • Linkages between researchers. Research in this field is grounded in many different disciplines. Establishing linkages between researchers will provide the opportunity for developing a common language and research priorities for multidisciplinary collaborations that will enhance the quality and depth of the investigations.

  • Linkages between the research community and practitioners, including parents, educators, technology designers, policy makers and others. Two-way communication is needed between the research community and those who are responsible for educating young people, formulating policies, and developing technology-based products or environments that impact young people. Practitioners can assist in identifying issues of concern for the research community to investigate. The effective dissemination of insight gained through research can help improve education, policies, products, and environments.

  • Collaborative strategies to address common concerns within the research community. Common concerns that were identified include human subjects issues, funding for research, effective dissemination of research results, and the education of the press, policy-makers, and the public about the appropriate interpretation of research findings.

Strategies to make use of interactive technologies to support a community of researchers and practitioners included the establishment of a web site that provides:

  • A directory of researchers and practitioners.

  • Links to information on research projects and research reports.

  • Links to information about current issues involving young people and their use of interactive technologies

  • A vehicle to coordinate the development of collaborative strategies, e.g. a glossary of important concepts and terms; a database of human subjects protocols that have been approved.

  • Online discussions, which may include general information exchange as well as structured discussions around issues of common concern.

These interactive technology-based strategies would be supplemented by professional meetings and conferences.

Directory of Researchers, Practitioners, Research Projects, and Research Reports

To facilitate the identification of researchers, practitioners, research projects, and research reports, a web site has been established at http://netizen.uoregon.edu/socialdimensions. This web site includes an input form to solicit this information. The results will be available in a searchable database. (Web site available April 5, 2000.)