Teens and Online Communities
With the ever-growing integration of technology in modern society, online interaction had become a significant aspect of many lives. We can communicate at the hands of a keyboard. We can relate through a screen. We can claim a seat in a subdivision of the internet where we feel a fierce sense of belonging. As a result, online communities have become very appealing to many users, especially teenagers of ages 12-18. This leaves one to wonder: what motivates these individuals to seek out online communities, and what role does this play in teenage development and the exploration of identity?
By definition, an online or virtual community is one formed over a digital platform, such as social media or other Internet-based applications. They often unite individuals with shared hobbies, thoughts, experiences, or goals. Members of these communities will return regularly to engage in discussions or activities rooted in a common interest, such as gaming or content sharing.
The current generation of young people are among those “born into digital technology,” as described in an article by Emily Seymour for the Voice of America. As a result, online communities are easily accessible and appealing to a broad audience of youth. In the ages of early adolescence, a fascination with media, eagerness for new knowledge, and the search for identity are all critical aspects of development. Correspondingly, during this time, teenagers take great interest in seeking and approaching new social experiences.
At a greater prevalence than ever before, these social experiences extend from traditional social groups to include those that rely solely on virtual communication. Youth are drawn to online communities because of the anonymity that shields users from judgment; in most cases, the anonymity cannot be replicated in typical in-person environments. In an article by Social Media Today, the widely popular website, Reddit, is used as an example. The extensive online platform and its ‘subreddit’ micro-communities allow individuals to openly exchange opinions, feelings, and ideas on various topics, ranging from advice threads to movie discussions.
Online communities of Reddit (Mike Maieli).
Online communities also provide teens with support systems and peer groups, which are essential as youth seek acceptance, identity, and a sense of belonging within society. An entry published in the Encyclopedia of Social Networks outlines how online communities are vital in the lives of many marginalized youth. The authors discuss how they allow “socially stigmatized teens to find new communities where they feel more connected.” These aspects contribute to the strong ties teenagers experience with virtual communities.
The COVID-19 pandemic has initiated worldwide lockdowns to control the spread of the virus. In this vulnerable time, social isolation has been linked to poor mental health. Online communities help combat this issue by providing virtual platforms for individuals to engage in social activities. According to the Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication, there are a few different motivators to join social groups: the exchange of knowledge, the expression of social support, the formation of friendships, and simply for entertainment. While social activities have been restricted in-person for over a year, online communities have restored it and allowed millions to regain the fundamental aspect of social interaction.
As was discussed, the attraction to online communities can be attributed to the many benefits it has on youth during early adolescent years and beyond. Firstly, the pursuit of identity, values, and belonging is a considerable aspect. In fact, an international study conducted by the Helsinki Institute for Information Technology found that young people identify strongly with the online communities they are a part of, almost as much as family. Additionally, these groups provide a platform to learn about new topics and seek different perspectives. For instance, data collected by The Washington Post gave rise to three key findings about youth political engagement:
Young people who participate in online communities are more likely to engage in politics
They are also more likely to engage in political discussion and vote in elections
Young people with online social networks will likely receive more exposure to politics
Social connection is at the root of who we are, and virtual communities grant the ability to achieve connection in an online setting. This is especially advantageous to youth who struggle with traditional socialization. In an article by Connected Parenting, the author shares how online environments can reduce social barriers and act as an empowering and comfortable space for children on the autism spectrum. Overall, online communities are beneficial in many ways and are a fundamental resource for youth.
As with all forms of social media and media consumption, there are risks. The Internet is a vast area to explore, and teenagers can find it overwhelming to navigate. When searching for rewarding online communities and a sense of belonging, it is critical to distinguish between positive aspects and negative influences or harmful behaviours. It is a good idea to consult a parent, teacher, or trusted adult for guidance in managing online environments.
Whether you belong to a gaming group, fandom, discussion forum, or ‘side’ of TikTok, we encourage you to embrace your online communities while being mindful of the impact your virtual social interactions have on your thoughts, feelings, and well-being. If you are interested in diving deeper into an online community and its aspects, check out On Ballet TikTok, a Place for Young Dancers to Be Real by The New York Times. The article takes a glimpse into the casual, humorous, and relatable environment of ballet dancers, where creators and young dancers alike laugh over funny videos, discuss important topics, and share educational advice. Wherever your community may be, may it grant you the valuable opportunity of self-expression, connection, and laughter.
Article Author: Victoria Huang
Article Editors: Stephanie Sahadeo, Edie Whittington