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Pros and Cons for Kids' Internet Use

Studies Show Mix of Potential Benefits and Risks When Kids Go Online
WebMD Health News
Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD

May 1, 2006 -- The Internet may be a help or a hazard when kids go online, new research shows.

Some of those risks and benefits are highlighted in a special issue of the journal Developmental Psychology. Among the findings:

  • Message boards about self-injurious behavior (such as cutting) included social support and risky content.
  • Kids' age is a big factor in how well they understood the Internet.
  • Low-income kids got better grades and test scores in reading after being given home Internet access.
  • In online chat rooms, youths were less likely to curse or engage in sexual talk if the chat room had a monitor.
  • Sexual health information was a popular Internet topic for teens in the African nation of Ghana.

Self-Harm and Message Boards

Message boards about self-harm, such as cutting oneself, was the topic for Cornell University's Janis Whitlock, PhD, MPH, and colleagues.

Whitlock's team identified 400 message boards about self-harm and did an in-depth study of 10 of those message boards. They focused on sites that weren't highly moderated, in order to avoid censors.

The boards had between 70 and more than 6,600 members. When membership information was available, most members claimed to be young women in their teens and 20s.

Over two months, the researchers studied more than 3,200 postings on the message boards. Most of those messages -- more than one in four -- offered informal support, such as, "We're glad that you're here" or "Just try to relax and try to breathe deeply and slowly."

But 9% of the messages mentioned ways to conceal self-harm and its effects (such as scars) and nearly as many mentioned the "addictiveness" of self-harm.

Those message boards may have provided "essential social support for otherwise isolated adolescents," write Whitlock and colleagues.

However, the researchers also voiced concern that some content on the boards might reinforce or promote self-harm.

A larger, longer study would help, the researchers note. Meanwhile, they stressstress that "it is very important for adults to know something about what adolescents, particularly vulnerable adolescents, encounter in the virtual communities they inhabit."

Age Is Important

"Age matters" in how well kids understand the Internet, writes Zheng Yan, EdD.

Yan is an assistant professor at the University of Albany's School of Education. He studied 322 elementary and middle-school kids in New England.

The students answered questions about the Internet's technical and social complexity, including:

  • "What is the Internet?"
  • "If you could walk into the Internet, what would it look like?"
  • "What kinds of good things can happen to us when we go to web sites?"
  • "What kinds of bad things can happen to us when we use email?"
  • "Do you need to be careful when you go to the WWW?"

In terms of understanding the Internet, kids' age was more important than gender, history of Internet use, frequency of Internet use, and participation in informal classes, Yan found.

He suggests using highly restricted filtering programs and kid-oriented sites for very young kids, with less restrictive filters for older children.

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