It's very likely that the Web your teen is using is very different from the one you've gotten to know over the last decade. In addition to serving up a seemingly bottomless stream of information, today's Web is more participatory, more social and more flexible than ever before.
While both you and your teen may be accustomed to surfing and downloading content, chances are she also is creating content - uploading photographs, posting opinions, maintaining an online journal, or blog, and updating her online profiles — as well as consuming it — scanning blogs, watching videos and listening to mashups. And, instead of visiting static sites that deliver the same information to all visitors, she may be using RSS feeds to bring the content to her and tailor it so that she gets only what she wants to see. Personalization is not only possible in the participatory online world teens occupy — what some call "Web 2.0" — it's wildly popular.
Personalization also fits with where teens are developmentally. Caught up in a quest for identity, teens are looking for ways to define who they are. They are working out a persona they can settle into and present to others. Online spaces can be very useful in helping them attain this goal. Some Web sites are outlets for individual self-expression while others are meeting grounds of like-minded peers. The Internet also provides many opportunities for a teen to establish an online look and personality, known as an avatar, that is different from her real-world appearance. The three-dimensional character she creates to represent her in a multi-player computer game and the two-dimensional icon she selects to be her virtual stand-in when she sends an instant message are just two examples.
If you want to know more about what your teen is doing online, the best way to find out is to ask.
At their most basic level, social networking sites, like MySpace, MOG and TakingITGlobal, give teens a chance to interact with friends, acquaintances and a multitude of strangers. Because each person who belongs to one of these networks creates a profile, these sites give teens opportunities to learn how they are similar and different from those around them and to build a sense of self. Questions about your teen's profiles, such as "What information do you include in your profile(s)?" and "How are your profiles different from one another?" are good places to start, but a richer exchange is likely to come from knowing how your teen interacts with other members of these networks. For example, you might ask, "What happens when members of the network have different opinions or interests — are you more likely to participate when everyone seems to agree or do you jump into debates?".
Though your teen may not divulge the details of his full profile(s) to you, he may give you insight into how he thinks about himself and what he finds appealing about others' profiles. How he handles tiers of access (public vs. friends only), whom he allows to post comments and how and when he responds to comments are good topics to explore. Also, he may need your help remembering that once information goes online, it is out of his hands — and potentially in the hands or college admissions offices and future employers. Anyone can view, copy, store and forward it to others — no permission necessary. Because teens can be both fickle and eager for something new and different, the popularity of social networks can vary; what's fashionable one week may be tired the next week. Check out Wikipedia's list of popular social networking sites and Netsmartz for more information on keeping personal information safe.
Many sites not only are social gathering places but collections of members' personal expressions. With the growing popularity of expressing oneself online it's no wonder that Flickr, Youtube and Revver have taken off. Indeed, teens are growing up in a media-saturated society and many are participating rather than solely viewing it from their couches and desktops. They are using blog entries, homemade video clips and music playlists to express opinions and identities, representing their evolving selves with frequent updates.
Your teen may find questions that address identity head-on to be too intrusive — after all, he is aiming to establish his independence in the world — so it might be useful to ask first about audience, such as, "Who's attention are you trying to grab?" and "What response are you hoping to receive?"
Teens are catching onto the idea that they don't have to go to the information they want - by visiting a string of Web sites, for example - but can have the information come to them. Commonly called RSS (Real Simple Syndication or Rich Site Summary), these feeds allow teens to subscribe to information sources and have them delivered to a single site. Google Alerts and Pageflakes are two examples of how young people can create tailor-made points of entry. These services allow them to select news, photos, music, bookmarks, blogs, weather and other content they want delivered to their personal start pages.
Two simple questions you can ask is, "What are your favorite sources of information?" and "Why?"
Digitization makes it easier to combine elements — something certainly not lost on teens who are fond of repurposing media to suit their interests, curiosities and needs. Resisting the idea that creativity is a solitary endeavor, many teens combine media bits — melodies, scenes from films, text authored by others — into their own unique multimedia creations known as mashups (short for mash it up).
Whether their collaborators are peers or well-known performers whose famous music their mashing-up, you can ask about their creative process: "How did you get the idea to combine certain elements?" and "What were you trying to do by changing other elements." To see examples of mashups go to MashupTown, which features a constantly rotating collection of digital creations as well as a light-hearted video tutorial hosted by "Granny Sue".
Social networking is not confined to the Web. Some services take advantage of mobile phones, global positioning system (GPS) technology, text messaging and digital images and videos, giving teens more tools to stay connected to their extended groups. Teens not only swap content typically found in their profiles, but they can find one another in real time and space. Talk to your teen about personal safety and privacy, asking such questions as: "What kinds of personal information are you releasing and to whom?".
In 2006 the MacArthur Foundation launched a five-year initiative to determine how digital technologies are changing the way young people learn, play, socialize and participate in civic life. As part of this initiative, Henry Jenkins, a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, identified the following set of 11 skills that young people will need-and schools and parents will need to spend more time fostering — if they are to be what he considers "full, active, creative, and ethical participants" in the emerging participatory culture.
More information about these skills is in a report titled, Confronting the Challenges of Participatory Culture: Media Education for the 21st Century (available as a PDF).