When it comes to teenagers and the Internet, much of the media and public attention invariably concerns the unsavory or dangerous aspects of the on-line world.

Asst. Prof. Susannah Stern (Communication), however, is most interested in the 'Net as a vehicle for teens' self-expression, especially via personal Web sites or in the increasingly popular on-line journals.

Susannah Stern
Teenagers' apparent willingness to share private thoughts about school, friends, family and other subjects in such a public forum might seem paradoxical: After all, the idea of parents or other adult relatives browsing through one's personal writings has horrified many a teen for generations.

But Stern, who has spoken about her research with the Washington Post, Philadelphia Inquirer, Fort Worth Star-Telegram and YM magazine, says there is an important distinction to be made between teens' real-life diaries and what they put up on the Web.

"It's not just a simple transferal from paper diary to Web diary," said Stern, who points out that many teens she studied keep both paper and on-line journals. "Speaking on the Web is fundamentally different, with fundamentally different appeal.

"First, the Web enables teens to address a potentially larger number of people than they have access to in their 'bodied' lives. Not only can they update school friends about their lives by posting information on the 'Net, but they can also present themselves to people of all ages across the globe.

"Second, teens have the potential to interact online with more people like themselves. They can feasibly locate or be located by others who share similar interests, anxieties, concerns, or lifestyles. They may find people who can accept parts of them that their real-life acquaintances cannot, or discuss topics that real-life friends and family avoid."

Since they can more carefully control their image on-line than in real-life interactions, Stern says, teens may experience a greater sense of power over their communication, even if it's anonymously or pseudonymously.

"One of the advantages of anonymity is that people become less inhibited and more likely to say things that are difficult or impossible to say in other settings. So, teens may feel freer to express their ideas and concerns on-line, to address taboo or unsavory topics, and to experiment with different self-presentation styles."

Still, there are some significant differences between boys and girls in the way they project themselves on-line, Stern says.

"Although boys tend to maintain personal home pages more often, girls disclose a lot more information," she said. "Girls are more likely to include their own original creations, such as poetry, artwork, stories, and essays. And they are also more likely to talk about families and relationships."

As such, Stern says, the 'Net represents an intriguing twist in the recent discussion on whether adolescent girls have adequate opportunities to speak and be heard in school or social settings.

"There really hasn't been much research investigating how girls might, and do, speak when given attention and security. So, my research considers the Web as one auspicious location for some girls to speak. I try to understand what girls have to say about their lives, who they want to listen to them, how they regard their expression, and how they use this new technology to communicate."

-Sean Smith


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