When Penn State professor Benjamin Hickerson wants to touch base with one of his far-away friends, he doesn’t turn to Facebook, email, videochatting or even text messaging.
Instead, Hickerson picks up a game controller and logs in to play “Call of Duty.”
Hickerson’s friend isn’t just far away — he’s stationed overseas in the military.
“I don’t call my friends on the phone much anymore and without video games, he and I wouldn’t talk,” Hickerson said. “But we play ‘Call of Duty’ together and it’s like it’s 1999 again.”
Hickerson and his friend aren’t alone in using gaming as a way to keep in touch. A 2013 study Hickerson helped with found that most of the teen gamers surveyed had a strong group of friends and were far from anti-social. And this month, Pew Research Center released a study that found that different forms of technology — from social media to mobile devices to video games — can help kids make new friends and maintain existing relationships.
The study is a ray of hope in a research landscape that’s been largely dedicated to deriding the benefits of teen technology use. Almost as quickly as it became a part of daily life, digital technology and social media use became the object of worry for parents and researchers alike. But some experts say such worries may be a thing of the past as the public has adapted to life in the digital age.
Studies dating back to the early 2000s looked at how social media was a venue for harassment and contributed to everything from depression to anxiety and loneliness. Gaming culture has endured similar treatment in research, amid findings that games can exacerbate aggression, ADHD and even hinder child brain development. Still more research has found that screen time in general may erode children’s social skills.
While Hickerson and Pew’s findings don't invalidate any of that research, it may be a signal of how public attitudes toward technology use has changed.
“The big take-away here is that these digital tools are really important to teens and their relationships,” said Amanda Lenhart, Pew’s associate director for research and the study’s co-author. “A lot of times we have a very negative view of this technology in teens’ lives, and it's important for parents to remember that teens are actually doing the important work of being an adolescent in the time they spend using these tools.”
The change in the public’s attitude toward teen technology use has a lot to do with how technology has improved over the past few decades.
Since the invention of Facebook, social media has improved dramatically, said Dr. Yalda Uhls, child psychologist and author of the upcoming parenting book “Media Moms and Digital Dads: A Fact-Not-Fear Approach to Parenting in the Digitial Age.”
“All the sudden, social media was much safer because sites like Facebook created a closed network of friends rather than a chat room, where anyone can talk to anyone,” Uhls said.
Video game technology has undergone profound changes as well, Hickerson says. Since Xbox and Playstation consoles integrated Internet access as part of game play in the early 2000s, Hickerson says gaming has become a leading social networking tool, especially for boys.
“The inlaid social mechanisms in the games nowadays gives gaming a social nature,” Hickerson said. “Even if you’re not talking to the other people playing online, you feel their presence (when you observe them in the game).”
But plenty of teens are talking to other players online. According to the new study from Pew, 52 percent of all teens play video games with friends and 13 percent say they play with friends on a daily basis. Pew found that 89 percent played with friends they knew in real life, but more than half — 54 percent — play with friends they know “only online” and 52 percent play with people online who they don’t qualify as friends.
The study also supported Hickerson’s findings that gaming doesn’t turn kids into isolated loners — 78 percent of teens who play online reported that they felt more connected to friends they already knew and 52 percent said they felt close with other gamers they didn't know.
This sense of community and closeness teens report feeling, Hickerson said, flies in the face of stereotypes about gaming.
“There’s an age-old perception of the person who plays video games as living in their parent’s basement, guzzling Mountain Dew and never talking to anyone,” Hickerson said. “Especially since gaming became social, that’s just not the case.”
People have also accepted technology use as part of daily life and maybe learning that there’s less to be afraid of than was once thought.
“When I was a kid playing (a Sega Genesis console), the technology was a foreign concept to my mom and grandma,” Hickerson said. “We’re more accepting of it as we age. We see our children and their children interact with the technology and we have a personal experience with it that works as a reference. Soon, it will be normal.”
While many still speculate over whether social media and technology use may make kids less social and more alienated, there’s growing evidence that technology actually improves teen friendships.
“It’s sort of like when you made a friend at camp and would never talk to person again — social media keeps these relationships going as a way for people far away to know you care about them,” Uhls said. “Nothing can replace face-to-face communication, but kids do have to learn how to communicate in these forums, and social media is a great way to do it.”
Hickerson said that like social media, games can give teens — especially boys — a sort of “safe space” to belong and develop social skills.
“Games allow so many ways to interact now that I think the way you choose to conduct yourself that is an indicator of how you’re going to interact with people in life,” Hickerson said. “There are many games that require people to enlist help from other players for a game to work. So you can try out and build social skills in that way.”
Hickerson says it’s possible that because gaming is now inherently social, it may have become a healthier activity for teens than it was before, but like a lot of social media, it depends on how its used.
“In our study, if people reported playing games for social reasons, like bonding with friends, they felt they had greater, stronger social network than others,” Hickerson said. “But for someone who’s centralized their life around games, if they reported their relationship was with the game itself or the machine (they played on), they reported minor deterioration (in social connections).”
And unlike past generations, kids today who have trouble fitting in may find a community of friends online they would otherwise go without, Uhls said.
“A teen who may feel they’re not fitting in can reach out to make friends online or not in vicinity,” Uhls said. “More kids feel better about themselves through social media than worse. There are trolls, there is bullying, but there’s much more positive reinforcement than negative to be found.”
In a way, the integration of technology into teen friendships changes nothing, says Dr. Linda Perlman Gordon, Maryland-based psychotherapist and co-author of “How to Connect with Your iTeen: A Parenting Roadmap."
“When I read the survey (from Pew), nothing really surprised me — kids are still doing what they’ve always done,” Gordon said. “When something changes, we say the sky is falling, but we don’t know full impact of the good or the bad. This is an evolution of how human beings have molded the media they have to their need to feel connected.”
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