The John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation has a message for parents worried about their children's use of the Internet: Chill out. A new study to be released today found that most teenagers steer clear of dangerous sites and use the Web only for research or to communicate with friends.
It's just that, as usual, parents don't understand.
"One of the main things we found is that it is highly motivating for kids to learn from peers, whether it's the everyday social stuff or learning about new technology or making videos or doing creative writing," said Mizuko Ito, a UC Irvine researcher and the report's lead author. "They're learning a lot of the basic social and technical skills they need to participate in contemporary society. If kids are excluded from participating, they're not learning to engage with media and technology in the way that their peers are."
Over three years, researchers interviewed more than 800 children and parents and spent thousands of hours observing how teenagers engage with social networking sites. They discovered that the Internet has become an integral and necessary component of a child's education and maturation.
Tell that to Daniel Ramirez.
Every night, when his 13-year-old daughter, Amanda, hops online, Ramirez is there to monitor the mouse clicks.
"I actually log her in just to make sure she goes to the right sites," said Ramirez, 48, who lives in Orange County. Because he worries about child predators and inappropriate Web content, he checks everything Amanda prints out and has a house rule that the Internet is only to be used for homework or to visit the free online math tutor.
"She comes home and tells me a lot of her friends want her to get on MySpace and Facebook," Ramirez said. "I tell her she doesn't need any of that."
Parents, the study said, are tough critics of the notion that updating your Facebook wall or posting a video to YouTube is as necessary as looking up information for a history paper.
"I have Internet only because she needs information for her homework," said Delmy Leiva of her daughter Elizabeth, 12. "I don't want her to find friends on the Internet. You never know who's on the other side."
Leiva, 38, said she doesn't allow Elizabeth to use an e-mail account and last year installed a program on their laptop that blocks MySpace. The seventh-grader at John H. Liechty Middle School near downtown thinks the restriction has kept her out of the loop with classmates.
"I want to talk to my friends," Elizabeth explained. "You're behind on information, like gossip."
The digital media study found that many parents are hyper-sensitive about what they feel are dangers lurking online, though their children actually tend to stay within their established circle.
"We found in the friendship-driven network -- that includes getting to know people, flirting and dating -- those were almost always contained with kids' existing peer groups," Ito said. "Social norms around this were pretty much in line with what adults would consider appropriate."
Take, for instance, avid Harry Potter fans. Those looking to find out more about the author might research J.K. Rowling, stumble across a YouTube clip of Rowling reading from her latest book, then discover a site that encourages young people to start writing their own fiction. Although parents worry about who their children are talking to online, Ito said they might actually be posting their stories online, critiquing someone else's prose and becoming engaged in a community focused on analyzing and appreciating their work.
In fact, for Freddy Toledo, the Internet has become a virtual coach. The 14-year-old Liechty middle-schooler has played soccer for seven years, and he surfs the Web mostly to find videos of other players with moves he can emulate.
Recently, the eighth-grader has devoured any online information he can find about vampires. He's been inspired by the book "Twilight," which he's reading for his English class. His parents only allot him an hour or two of Internet use each night, so Freddy spends his time wisely. That means he doesn't waste his precious minutes on Facebook.
"I rarely use it," he said. "I don't find it interesting."