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Kids online: Social media sites can help develop identity, study says

A new study that seeks to understand how new, kid-focused online venues effect adolescence says that social media forums can promote forms of social and identity development. Those skills, the study says, can help encourage civic involvement later in life. 

By / January 31, 2013

The number of kids online is increasing, but research on the effects, benefits and consequences of child internet use is lagging behind. A new study, analyzing a number of social media websites for kids online, is stepping up. Here, two sisters under the age of 10 play games on their computer. 2010.

Christian Science Monitor


Imagine a game in which a child not only discovers, collects, creates, and/or customizes 2- and 3-dimensional art objects that s/he then shares with fellow player-creators, but also creates his/her own levels of play. Imagine the literacies players could be developing in the process of playing such a game, including social literacy, through sharing, “liking,” and reviewing each other’s creations.

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Guest Blogger

Anne Collier is editor of and co-director of, a Web-based interactive forum and information site for teens, parents, educators, and everybody interested in the impact of the social Web on youth and vice versa. She lives in Northern California and has two sons.

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Wonderfully, there’s nothing imagined about any of that. Millions of children 5- to 12-years-old are playing this game (rated “E” for “Everyone”), LittleBigPlanet, in 13 languages on PlayStation 3 consoles, and this is just one social-media venue profiled by a study from the Joan Ganz Cooney Center at Sesame Workshop in New York. There is still so little we know about preteens’ use of social media, but thanks to this report – which both pulls together the research we do have and catalogs what we still need to know – we have some rich new insights.

The authors write that “many important new literacies are necessary for participating deeply in some of the best practices available in SNF,” as the description of what happens in and around LittleBigPlanet shows (the authors prefer the broader term “forums” to “sites,” thus using “social networking forums” or SNF). “Research also suggests that SNF can also promote some forms of social and identity development. Emerging SNF that sponsor sharing creative designs may provide unique opportunities for children to develop these kinds of new literacies and social practices, sometimes also called “citizenship.”

One of the arguments the study’s authors make, thankfully, is that “social networking,” “gaming,” and other terms used to describe children’s experiences in and with these services, are way too narrow, and the research literature tends to silo them – if it even allows that learning and literacy development happen in them, I would add (considering recent studies relegating children’s screen time to “entertainment media”). In LittleBigPlanet, for example, there’s gaming, media production, media-sharing, and socializing, to name just a few types of online activity – it’s far more than a game or social network site.

Child-centric research called for

Research needs to be less prejudiced by the public discourse about teens’ social media use and adult experiences with media (largely of the very different, mass-media era), I have argued, and this report calls for a more child-focused approach because children are very different developmentally from teens and have very different interests: “Children’s own practices and preferences need to be better accounted for in future discussions and research,” they write. “A more child-centric approach to these issues would assist enormously in avoiding the types of assumptions and omissions identified above.” Then maybe, too, as a society, we’ll consider children’s rights as well as safety – seek young people’s, not just adults’ “perspectives on questions of privacy, consent and freedom of speech, authorship and transfer of ownership, as well,” they write.

Some data we do have

Here’s some of the data we do have on preteens’ use of social media, according to the report: “Children don’t begin to ‘extend their media habits deeper into the digital realm’ until sometime between the ages of 7 and 9,” the Cooney Center reported in an earlier study, so “an important shift in usage takes place at around age 8″; “about 30% of 3-to-5-year-old children use the Internet on a typical day, compared with about 50% of 6-to-9-year olds” and 47% of 6-year-olds use the Internet on a typical day, compared with 67% of 8-year-olds. But there is so much more to learn as we move past the assumptions and fears that characterized the first phase of Web 2.0. “The lack of substantive empirical research of their practices, concerns, and motivations precludes us from understanding what they are doing, thinking, and feeling as they engage there.”

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