This is the fifth in a series of articles about the effects of technology on contemporary parenting.

Q: What other ways does technology affect development and learning in children and teens?

A: The following material is from an article by Gustavo S. Mesch, University of Haifa, Israel. He is a former Chair of the Communication and Information Technologies section of the American Sociological Association. There is ongoing debate about whether or not technology has positive or negative effects on youth, or both. There are two major perspectives.

The first is called technological determinism. Technology produces new patterns or motivation, communication, and expression. Young adolescents grow up surrounded by the Internet, computers, video games, and constant communication with friends using electronic devices. Over time, households accumulate more media items and adolescents appropriate these devices, eventually taking them to their rooms. There they can create a culture without parental control or supervision.

These contemporary adolescents express different values, behavior and attitudes than prior generations. They are influenced by technology in significant ways. They possess rather sophisticated knowledge and skills using information technologies, espouse values that support experiential learning, and support a creation of culture in digital space. They have learning and social preferences.

Technological determinism considers technology an independent force that drives social change. Technology exercises casual influences on social practices. Technological change initiates change in social organizations and cultures regardless of the desirability of that change.

The social construction of technologies theory has produced conflicts. Technology is an inherent part of culture, created by humans. Social groups differ in their abilities to access technology, their skills, and the measurings they ascribe to technology. Technologies are social products that contain power relationships, social goals and social structure. They do have an impact on society. Thus, technological changes are processes and do not adhere to a single direction. Commercial companies own digital spaces such as social networking sites, blogs, and clip or photo sharing. These spaces target youth and try to influence their consumption patterns.

Through these spaces, youth are empowered. They can establish relationships with others not limited by geography and based on specific interests that also transcend physical boundaries. Youth take an important social role as co-producers of the Internet and reach large and global audiences with their Internet contributions.

Communicating online releases individuals from any constraints imposed by their locations, their real life personalities and their social roles. Thus, online they can create and experiment with their identities and alternate selves. In other words, youth can create virtual persons. They can experiment with different ways to solve unresolved, past conflicts.

The Internet offers users escapism online in addition to opportunities to assume different identities. It offers a zone of virtual reality that is seen by users as more intimate, more liberating and richer than reality. Adolescents use instant messaging and social networking to sustain relationships beyond their immediate social groups. They are able to access new social networks and additional information resources.

Gustavo Mesch sees the Internet as not creating a new online virtual world but as reflecting existing social conditions. Youth use the Internet to facilitate the same behaviors that youth have always practiced, using added technical tools.

Adolescents use technology to accomplish major developmental tasks such as autonomy, identity and social interaction. An important development is the shift in association between media and youth. Youth actively participate in the creation of technology content. Examples are blogs, which are essentially online diaries used to build identities and provide socialization.

Another developmental task of adolescence is relationship building and maintenance of existing friends. Social relationships outside the family expand. Social interactions with peers provide an avenue for learning and an opportunity to refine social skills.

The most frequent use of the Internet is for social reasons: 93 percent of youth send and receive emails; 68 percent send and receive instant messages; 55 percent have profiles on social networking sites; 28 percent have online blogs; 18 percent utilize chat rooms.

Youth communicate online and off line. Communications overlap and create continual peer connections and communications. Conversations at school continue at home. Social media can be used to schedule get-togethers among friends. Youth multi-task with multimedia devices. A comprehensive study on multi-tasking in the U.S. found that a quarter of youth multi-task most of the time. About half multi-task sometimes, and 20 percent never multi-task. It is much less prevalent when the primary media used is TV.

Another U.S. study reported that 91 percent of teens use social networking to keep in touch with friends they frequently see, whereas 82 percent use this site to maintain contacts with friends they rarely see, and 72 percent use the site to make plans with friends.

The majority of contacts in social networking and IM are school friends. The Internet supports youth social life, offering perpetual contact. Thus, the existence of the virtual world of youth media and social multi-tasking.

Adolescents share personal feelings and their whereabouts online. They are rather oblivious to the fact that information is being shared with an infinite audience. The boundaries between online and off line, private and public, are blurred constantly. These boundary issues need more in depth research.

Next week’s discussion will continue with a final discussion on the effects of technology on child and adolescent development and learning.

Judy Caprez is professor emeritus at Fort Hays State University.