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Study Identifies Digital Stressors in Youth Experiences Online

By Newseditor on July 24, 2014 3:38 PM

In a new study published online this week by New Media & Society, Harvard Graduate School of Education doctoral candidate Emily Weinstein, Ed.M’14, and Professor Robert Selman identify specific digital stressors related to adolescents’ experiences online. Though the media and public has focused on hostile actions causing digital stress such as cyberbullying, Weinstein and Selman discovered that adolescents also experience digital stress from non-hostile situations such as when adolescents attempt to form and maintain intimacy or close connections with others through digital technologies. The identification of specific stressors, especially non-hostile stressors, labeled Type 2 by the researchers, will lead to better interventions and support of adolescents growing up in the digital world.

“There are real challenges that stem not just from people wanting to be mean, and not necessarily from hostility, but also simply from trying to navigate intimacy in a digital world — these fall into the Type 2 stressors,” Weinstein said. “There is real value in disentangling these different digital stressors so we can think in a new, nuanced way about intervention and prevention efforts, and really supporting young people in the different challenges they face.”

“There is real value in disentangling these different digital stressors so we can think in a new, nuanced way about intervention and prevention efforts, and really supporting young people in the different challenges they face.”

The study, “Digital Stress: Adolescents’ Personal Accounts,” explores the content of 2,000 adolescents’ anonymous accounts of digital stress posted to the MTV website, AThinLine.org. In particular, the study explored 648 stories tied to digital challenges adolescents face in their social lives. The research revealed categories associated with Type 1 and Type 2 digital stress. The well-documented Type 1 stressors include experiences such as being impersonated, receiving a barrage of personal attacks, and being outed, shamed, or humiliated publicly, whereas the lesser-documented Type 2 involves a curious or controlling boy/girlfriend or friend constantly breaking into social media accounts or smartphone devices to read digital communications with others, feeling smothered by the quantity of digital communications with close others, and feeling a pressure to comply with requests that reveal something considered highly personal and private. One example of a Type 2 stressor for adolescents, the researchers pointed out, is sexting.

“Our analysis revealed that sexting nude photographs, for example, often begins as a way to signal trust and commitment,” Weinstein said. “However, the analysis of the anonymous teens’ personal accounts reveals how surprised teens are when these expressions of connection so easily become public. This is important information not only for professionals and parents, but for the teens themselves.”

Selman noted that while we’ve long known about the stresses associated with adolescents’ search for affiliation and affection, these digital stressors had yet to be well documented. “Specifically, we have begun to chart not only the quality and intensity, but, most importantly, the originality of intimacy-oriented (Type 2) stress as it occurs in the new digital world,” he said. “Since we began this new work a year ago, we have been amazed at the desire on the part of parents as well as professionals to not only have this information, but to understand its implications.”

Weinstein and Selman are continuing to conduct research using data from the stories and feedback posted anonymously to MTV’s Over the Line? — an online forum where youth share experiences of digital abuse and receive peer feedback and support. They are looking next at the comments adolescents post in response to peers’ stories, in order to explore recommendations and advice peers offer for managing different kinds of digital stress. The forum is part of MTV's A Thin Line campaign, a multiyear initiative launched in 2009 aimed at addressing issues of online abuse such as sexting, cyberbullying, and digital dating abuse.

The full study, “Digital stress: Adolescents’ Personal Accounts,” will be available and free to all beginning this week online by New Media & Society, published by Sage Publications.

PRESS NOTE: Reporters interested in speaking to the study authors should contact Jill Anderson at jill_anderson@gse.harvard.edu