Blogs and Teenagers: Teenage Blogging
One place that many adolescents spend a lot of time is online (Herring, Kouper, et al 2004). Being online allows them the opportunity to embark on self-discovery, connect with others, experiment with gender and learn about the world. Many adolescents have embraced blogging, and some studies suggest that almost half of all blogs are created and maintained by teenagers (Rainie & Horrigan 2005; Huffaker & Calvert 2005). It is for this reason that parents and educators need to be aware of the some of issues surrounding the practice and these are now discussed more fully.
Many teenage blogs cover the same territory, such as references to romantic relationships in the boyfriend/girlfriend genre, discussion about what is going on with school or study, typed lyrics of favourite songs and links or discussion about favourite music or bands. While many parents may already see the advantages in their teenager regularly writing about something, as this will improve their communication and literacy skills, there are also other benefits. Blogs can help a teenager develop digital literacy, as they provide a way to have a presence on the Internet that is easy to set up and requires no technical expertise. I believe this is particularly important in terms of teenage girls, who are often described as disinterested in technology (AAUW 2000), but have been identified as a demographic which has embraced the practice of blogging; with a number of studies finding there are more female teen bloggers than male (Herring, Kouper et al 2004).
Blogs also provide a no cost, “owned” and personal space that can give an adolescent the feeling of having some type of power or voice, at a time when they can feel the peculiar powerlessness that comes when a person is bridging childhood and adulthood. Nurmi (2004) argues that at the edge of adulthood people begin to construct and make sense of their lives by thinking more deeply about the events that have shaped them both in the past and present. In terms of this process, writing about oneself and being able to reflect on past journal entries could be a way of helping this process.
The format of blogs allows for instant communication and dialog between writer and audience and for some people who feel lonely or disconnected this may provide an opportunity to feel part of the larger world and connected to others. Teenagers in particular can feel they are misunderstood and the only ones suffering the growing up process, so the opportunity to form relationships and affiliations with other bloggers is positive on two levels. Not only does it offer the opportunity of “belonging” in a personal sense, but also by the process of commenting, linking and posting to each other’s blogs, bloggers form a type of community (Lave & Wenger 1981) which may have a positive effect on learning about social ties, friendship and connection (Lenhart et al 2005).
The blog can also serve as a safety valve for the frustration of day-to-day living, and many bloggers readily take the opportunity to vent to the world about what is going on in their lives. Numerous teenage blogs I visited use it as a way of complaining about friends and family or the pressure of study and exams. Some of the blogs I viewed belonged to teenage girls who were suffering from Anorexia. I observed these young women utilising their blogs to share their frustration with how they felt about their body image, their struggle with how to get through each day without eating or the perceived interference of parents into their eating habits.
A young person is also able to use the blog space to experiment and find his or her own identity. In terms of sexual identity, Huffaker (2004) found that of the blogs he surveyed, 17% of the bloggers discussed their homosexuality and used their blog as a platform for ‘coming out’.
Contrary to the early claims of the Internet being an ideal way for a person to experiment with masking or switching gender, (Turkle, 1995), the creators of most blogs tend to display a strong willingness to supply authentic, personal information about themselves and this is particularly so with teenagers. Dring (2001) in fact found that on the blogs she reviewed, gender was the strongest representation of ‘self’, via disclosure of names or photos.
While I have so far discussed the positive aspects of blogging for teenagers, recent findings also point to some negative aspects of blog use. A recent study of online identity and language among teenagers by Huffaker & Calvert (2005) has found that the vast majority of teenagers stayed close to reality when expressing themselves online. The troubling aspect of teenagers being authentic, is that they often revealed personal information such as real name, age, location and other ways of being located such as email addresses, instant messenger addresses or phone numbers.
Parents need to be aware that children and young adults can and do publish private information about themselves and their families which could lead to undesirable contact by other adults who may be sexual predators. Because bloggers frequently link to other blogs, adolescents may also stumble into other people’s blogs that may contain inappropriate or disturbing pictures or discussion content.
As well, this open sharing of information may put some families at risk by revealing details about their living situations that may leave them open to home invasion or burglary.
The aspects of online community and belonging that blogs can engender, also has a negative side. For example in terms of eating disorders, some health authorities warn that pro-Anorexia communities which link up via websites and blogs may be unintentionally encouraging the eating disorder, as they provide an environment and opportunity to belong to the eating disorder club. This rationale can be applied to blogs that deal with a number of different behaviours such as Deliberate Self-Harm Syndrome (which refers to self-cutting, branding or burning), as these type of blogs may normalise and affirm the very behaviour that defines the disease or disorder (Hayashi 2006, National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders).
Blogs are also used as a tool in cyber-bullying (bullying behaviour online). For example Huffaker (2004) cites a recent study in which 2,500 children aged 10 to 17 years of age reported being harassed or threatened online. With the amount of personal information provided on many blogs, this can give bullies not only ways of contacting the blogger, but ammunition in the form of the personal or candid disclosures made by the blogger on their blog.
Author: Angela Lewis (January 2006)