Avery Taylor is talkative enough at school, but his social life really picks up at 10 p.m. when he goes online. The Connecticut high school sophomore signs on Instant Messenger, MySpace and — if he's not in trouble – he usually talks on his cell phone, too.
"Cell phone in one hand, I'm typing with the other," said Avery, 16, who currently has 441 friends on MySpace. "I'm very into communication."
Think that teens are isolated while trolling the Internet and listening to their iPods? Think teens have lost the ability to communicate in the real world because they are too plugged in? Think again, says a group of students at Waterbury Arts Magnet School. Colleagues and I visited the suburban Connecticut school to talk to students about how technology affects their social life. What we found is they can't imagine a social life without technology.
"Losing my Internet connection would be horrible for me," Avery said. "I remember my computer crashed in the summer of 2005 and I almost died. I could not live without my computer. It's too important for me."
Students attend Waterbury Arts from across the district — they are admitted by lottery. That means many students aren't going to school with their neighborhood friends, and also live far away from friends they make at school. Principal Alan Kramer said the Internet lets students stay connected.
"We have kids from the city and 10 towns," Kramer said. "It can be a very isolating experience. You come to this place and it's new, big and different. But if they are in connection with their friends all the time, they don't feel so isolated."
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Part of getting connected online is creating a page on a social network such as Facebook or MySpace, said Sandra Calvert, a professor of psychology and the director of the Children's Digital Media Center at Georgetown University. Creating a page gives teens an outlet for expressing their identity, Calvert said.
"On my MySpace, I put an image of who I am," said Avery, who makes several references to how he likes to sing on his MySpace page. "I made my MySpace revolve around everything I love — music, poetry, things of that nature … It's now an image of who I feel I am inside, and that's the person I want people to see."
The pages also let students experiment with their identity, said Amanda Lenhart, a senior research specialist with the Pew Internet and American Life Project, a non-profit research organization.
"Offline, if you change your appearance radically, maybe experiment with being a goth, there are physical consequences — people make assumptions about you and family members get upset," Lenhart said. "In the online world it's a little bit easer to (do) that kind of experimentation with a different persona without having to face real-world consequences. It's a safer place for teens to be exploring identities and they are doing that."
But in the years when teens are learning how to fit in and connect with others, technology is changing the nature of conversations. All the students we talked to thought that the best way to have a serious conversation was in person, but a few, such as junior Nick Larsson, admit to breaking up with a significant other online.
"It's not the best way to do it," Nick said. "But it's so easy."
Ashley Randall, a sophomore, agreed.
"You don't have to see their feelings, you don't see the look on their face and you don't feel as bad," said Ashley. "In person you have to deal with the things they are going to say to you. If you are online, you can just sign off if you don't want to hear what they have to say."