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Online time may foster youngster’s social involvement


Adults often express fear that young people spend too much time online and, as a result, are losing a sense of the importance of social interaction, civic involvement and participation in social communities.

A Northwestern University researcher who for seven years has been studying a remarkable online community of 3,000 youngsters aged 10 to 16 disagrees.

"The involvement of youngsters in online communities today is qualitatively, not quantitatively, different than it was a generation ago," says Justine Cassell, professor of communication studies and director of the Program on Technology and Social Behavior at Northwestern University.

She is presenting her findings Sunday, Feb. 19, at the annual meeting of the Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) in St. Louis.

"For young technology enthusiasts, involvement might not mean attending meetings in school gymnasiums or sitting around campfires. Their social or civic engagement may take place in online communities in the glow of their home computer screens," Cassell says.

In studying the online group of young people who represent 139 countries and have different social backgrounds and levels of computer proficiency, she and her colleagues David Huffaker of Northwestern University and Dona Tversky of Stanford University find that the youngsters demonstrate high levels of civic involvement and care passionately about their communities and the world.

Cassell has studied the characteristics of youth leadership and leadership styles by analyzing data resulting from the 1998 online Junior Summit that she directed.

Without ever seeing one another face-to-face, and in a community almost entirely free of adult intervention, these children traded messages in an online forum about the ways technology could improve life for the world’s young citizens. They then elected leaders to represent their community in a real world meeting with political and industry leaders from around the world.

"While other studies have reported that leadership in the online world is similar to leadership in the off-line or physical world, those studies have been based on the behaviors of adult technology users," says Cassell. "We have found that young leaders using technology do not necessarily reproduce adult styles of leadership."

Cassell and her colleagues found that they could predict who was going to be elected a leader after analyzing the kinds of language the youngsters used online. And, whereas in the real world "leader language" has been found to contain many references to the leader’s ideas and abilities, that was not the case in the data from the online Junior Summit.

The leaders in Cassell’s online community were more likely to synthesize the ideas of others and to be highly socially adept -- characteristics more typical of women than men in studies of adult, offline leaders. In fact, more girls than boys were elected to leadership positions in the online community.

Cassell also found that online community members appear to place high value on collaboration, social ability and persuasiveness. In adult studies those styles of leadership are found to exist more frequently in women than in men.

Cassell’s paper is titled "Youth Leadership Online: A New Paradigm for Civic Participation" and is part of an AAAS panel on teenagers and technology.

Wendy Leopold | EurekAlert!
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