“Untitled” by JacekAbramowicz is licensed under CC0.
What Adolescents Miss When We Let Them
Grow Up in Cyberspace
By Brent Staples
Today, the Internet plays an important and frequent role in most people lives, but especially teenagers. In
this informational text, Brent Staples explores how the Internet may be impacting teenagers’ development.
As you read, take notes on what teenagers use the Internet for and how it impacts their development.
My 10th-grade heartthrob was the daughter of a
fearsome steelworker who struck terror into the
hearts of 15-year-old boys. He made it his
business to answer the telephone — and so
always knew who was calling — and grumbled in
the background when the conversation went on
too long. Unable to make time by phone, the boy
either gave up or appeared at the front door. This
meant submitting to the intense scrutiny1 that
the girl’s father soon became known for.
He greeted me with a crushing handshake, then
leaned in close in a transparent attempt to find
out whether I was one of those bad boys who
smoked. He retired to the den during the visit,
but cruised by the living room now and then to let me know he was watching. He let up after some
weeks, but only after getting across what he expected of a boy who spent time with his daughter and
how upset he’d be if I disappointed him.
This was my first sustained encounter with an adult outside my family who needed to be convinced of
my worth as a person. This, of course, is a crucial part of growing up. Faced with same challenge today,
however, I would probably pass on meeting the girl’s father — and outflank2 him on the Internet.
Thanks to e-mail, online chat rooms, and instant messages — which permit private, real-time
conversations — adolescents have at last succeeded in shielding their social lives from adult scrutiny.
But this comes at a cost: teenagers nowadays are both more connected to the world at large than ever,
and more cut off from the social encounters that have historically prepared young people for the move
The Internet was billed as a revolutionary way to enrich our social lives and expand our civic
connections. This seems to have worked well for elderly people and others who were isolated before
they got access to the World Wide Web. But a growing body of research is showing that heavy use of
the Net can actually isolate younger socially connected people who unwittingly allow time online to
replace face-to-face interactions with their families and friends.
1. Scrutiny (noun): critical observation or examination
2. to maneuver around an enemy
From The New York Times May 29, 2004 © 2004 The New York Times. All rights reserved. Used by permission and protected by the Copyright
Laws of the United States. The printing, copying, redistribution, or retransmission of this Content without express written permission is
Online shopping, checking e-mail and Web surfing — mainly solitary activities — have turned out to be
more isolating than watching television, which friends and family often do in groups. Researchers have
found that the time spent in direct contact with family members drops by as much as half for every
hour we use the Net at home.
This should come as no surprise to the two-career couples who have seen their domestic lives taken
over by e-mail and wireless tethers that keep people working around the clock. But a startling body of
research from the Human-Computer Interaction Institute at Carnegie Mellon has shown that heavy
Internet use can have a stunting effect outside the home as well.
Studies show that gregarious,3 well-connected people actually lost friends, and experienced symptoms
of loneliness and depression, after joining discussion groups and other activities. People who
communicated with disembodied strangers online found the experience empty and emotionally
frustrating but were nonetheless seduced by the novelty of the new medium. As Prof. Robert Kraut, a
Carnegie Mellon researcher, told me recently, such people allowed low-quality relationships developed
in virtual reality to replace higher-quality relationships in the real world.
No group has embraced this socially impoverishing trade-off more enthusiastically than adolescents,
many of whom spend most of their free hours cruising the Net in sunless rooms. This hermetic4
existence has left many of these teenagers with nonexistent social skills — a point widely noted in
stories about the computer geeks who rose to prominence in the early days of Silicon Valley.5
Adolescents are drawn to cyberspace for different reasons than adults. As the writer Michael Lewis
observed in his book “Next: The Future Just Happened,” children see the Net as a transformational
device that lets them discard quotidian6 identities for more glamorous ones. Mr. Lewis illustrated the
point with Marcus Arnold, who, as a 15-year-old, adopted a pseudonym a few years ago and posed as a
25-year-old legal expert for an Internet information service. Marcus did not feel the least bit guilty, and
wasn’t deterred, when real-world lawyers discovered his secret and accused him of being a fraud.
When asked whether he had actually read the law, Marcus responded that he found books “boring,”
leaving us to conclude that he had learned all he needed to know from his family’s big-screen TV.
Marcus is a child of the Net, where everyone has a pseudonym, telling a story makes it true, and
adolescents create older, cooler, more socially powerful selves any time they wish. The ability to slip
easily into a new, false self is tailor-made for emotionally fragile adolescents, who can consider a bout
of acne or a few excess pounds an unbearable tragedy.
But teenagers who spend much of their lives hunched over computer screens miss the socializing, the
real-world experience that would allow them to leave adolescence behind and grow into adulthood.
These vital experiences, like much else, are simply not available in a virtual form.
3. Gregarious (adjective): sociable
5. an area in southern San Francisco, home to many start up and technology companies
6. ordinary or everyday
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