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Studies of Teens Challenge Us to Keep Learning

Five 2013 studies that ask important questions about youth development.

Thousands of research studies are published each year that increase our understanding of how teens overcome challenges and develop into happy, healthy adults. 2013 was no exception. Yet most studies never make their way from academia to the people who benefit most from them – parents, teachers, and others who support youth. 

Of the many studies that came to my attention last year, here are five that keep me focused on the goal of bringing research to more public eyes. Each of the studies challenges us to keep learning about ourselves and our children. They also help us ask new questions that matter to the happiness and health of our youth. 

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1. Communities Play Vital Roles in Developing Youth 

There is a large body of research that has examined negative community factors that contribute to crime and delinquency. But what community assets actually support the healthy development of youth? 

In a study published by Youth & Society, Smith, Faulk, & Sizer reported three factors that improve positive outcomes for teens: 1) Community networks and support for families, 2) Connections that link teens to resources such as mentoring and positive role models, 3) Peer relationships that provide teens with a sense of confidence and interdependence. 

This study makes us ask important questions, including the following. 

  • How do communities nurture the positive foundations of youth development, not just react to negative factors and current problems?
  • How do communities effectively connect youth to resources that help them thrive?
  • How do communities nurture a strong Internal Compass in children that fosters positive peer relationships and the abilities to succeed in life?

Learn how two very different communities are working collaboratively to make a positive difference for children and families.

2. Technology Has the Potential to Expand Teens’ Informal Learning 

Research shows that learning via technology has both personal and societal benefits.  When we reach beyond our own communities to understand others, we have the potential to contribute to our individual and society’s growth and development. A young person’s motivation to learn through informal, not just school-related, ways sets the stage for them to become lifelong learners

With increased use of the Internet and social media, we might assume that young people are expanding their learning opportunities through the relationships they form online. However, Peyina Lin from the University of Washington and Shelly Farnham from FUSE Labs at Microsoft Research conducted a study on teens’ informal learning networks that showed teens do not generally interact with new people outside of their immediate social networks of family, friends, and school. 

Why don’t teens reach into extended networks to pursue new learning? This study found that a sense of relatedness played the main role in who they engaged with online. If they didn’t feel emotionally connected, they were less likely to reach out to pursue learning beyond their familiar networks. 

Admittedly, Lin and Farnham’s work did not address online safety which should be at the forefront of efforts to help teens extend their learning networks. However, the study suggests important questions, including the following. 

  • How do we help teens develop online learning networks by increasing their awareness of people who share similar interests or challenges to overcome?  
  • How do we help teens discover expertise outside of their immediate online networks who can mentor and encourage them?  
  • How do we collaborate with teens so they become more self-directed in their online learning? 

3. Video Games Can Promote Positive Youth Development 

While most researchers studied how violent video games can negatively influence adolescent behaviors, researchers at Brock University in Ontario, Canada argued that playing video games can foster initiative in youth and may be related to improving positive outcomes, like problem-solving, cooperation, and pro-social behavior. 

In their review of current research, published in the Journal of Adolescent Research, Adachi & Willoughby urged social scientists to pursue the study of positive outcomes associated with video games. Their work produced the following excellent questions. 

4. Video Chats between Teens have Benefits but also Risks 

Research suggests that the use of video chat services like Skype, FaceTime and Google Hangouts has the potential to develop positive connections and relationships between teens and their peers. 

In a study published by Simon Fraser University, researchers Buhler, Neustaedter, and Hillman discovered How and Why Teenagers Use Video Chat, and the important role it can play in their socialization with friends. However, some risks were uncovered for which parents should be aware. 

According to the study, teens most often used video chat when they wanted to, 1) share spontaneous news with friends; 2) engage in “show and tell,” for example, to share new clothing, electronics, or accomplishments with friends; 3) gossip about boyfriends, girlfriends, parents, etc.;  4) flirt, share nudity, and sexual acts; 5) do homework together; 6) share “real-time” performances, like skateboarding, dancing, etc.; and 6) play games. 

This study showed that teens use video chat differently that adults who primarily use it to converse with family members living in distant locations. While many of the activities conducted over video chat by teenagers may be helpful in developing deeper connections to peers, the biggest risk is how easy video chat makes it for teens to perform sexually explicit acts that can then be viewable by others. 

Important questions include the following: 

  • How do parents help teens use video chat in ways that encourage positive connections with peers while reducing potentially harmful ones?
  • How do video chats help or hinder young peoples’ understanding of positive sexual relationships? 

5. Teens Can Learn to Manage Their Emotions in Effective Youth Programs 

Research shows that organized after-school programs can provide teens with special opportunities to develop life and career skills.  As young people reach adolescence, they are able to think about and analyze their emotions in more conscious ways and to regulate their anxiety and anger. Emotional management skills are critical to leading healthy and productive lives. 

Youth programs can help teens understand and improve their emotional states. In a study of four youth programs published in Research, Applications, and Interventions for Children and Adolescents, Rusk, Larson, Raffaelli, et al, found that adult program leaders play a key role in coaching youth in situations that involve emotions. The following questions are important to understand. 

What other questions come to mind as you read these research summaries? What can you share about how your family, school, or community tackled these questions or plan to do so in the future? 

References 

Adachi, P. J., & Willoughby, T. (2013). Do Video Games Promote Positive Youth Development? Journal of Adolescent Research, 28(2), 155-165. 

Buhler, T., Neustaedter, C., & Hillman, S. (2013, February). How and why teenagers use video chat. In Proceedings of the 2013 conference on Computer supported cooperative work (pp. 759-768). ACM. 

Lin, P., & Farnham, S. D. (2013, February). Opportunities via extended networks for teens' informal learning. In Proceedings of the 2013 conference on Computer supported cooperative work (pp. 1341-1352). ACM. 

Rusk, N., Larson, R. W., Raffaelli, M., Walker, K., Washington, L., Gutierrez, V., ... & Perry, S. C. (2013). Positive Youth Development in Organized Programs: How Teens Learn to Manage Emotions. In Research, Applications, and Interventions for Children and Adolescents (pp. 247-261). Springer Netherlands. 

Smith, E. P., Faulk, M., & Sizer, M. A. (2013). Exploring the Meso-System: The Roles of Community, Family, and Peers in Adolescent Delinquency and Positive Youth Development. Youth & Society

Author

Marilyn Price-Mitchell, PhD, is a developmental psychologist working at the intersection of youth development,leadership, education, and civic engagement. 

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©2014 Marilyn Price-Mitchell. All rights reserved. Please contact for permission to reprint. 

Photo Credit: Aleksandr Khakimullin

Marilyn Price-Mitchell, Ph.D., is a developmental psychologist and researcher in the field of positive youth development and youth civic engagement.

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