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Sociology researcher studies what teens think about cyber-risk, social media and smartphones

Michael Adorjan conducts teen focus groups to explore how youth deal with risks they face online
August 24, 2016
University of Calgary assistant professor Michael Adorjan, in the Department of Sociology, is studying not only the social network platforms teens are using but also what their experiences are, and messages from parents and teachers about how to manage risk online. Photo by Riley Brandt, University of Calgary

University of Calgary assistant professor Michael Adorjan, in the Department of Sociology, is studying not only the social network platforms teens are using but also what their experiences are, and messages from parents and teachers about how to manage risk online. Photo by Riley Brandt, University of Calgary 

As a father raising a five-year-old daughter, Michael Adorjan admits to a certain nervousness as he researches how teens deal with the risks they are facing online.

“She’s a little young at this point to be on social media, but it does raise interesting questions about what you would do,” says Adorjan, an assistant professor at the University of Calgary who is conducting teen focus groups on cyber-risk. “I think that, overall, I have calmed down.”

Along with Rose Ricciardelli, an assistant professor at Memorial University in St. John’s, N.L., Adorjan has launched a study on youths ages 13 to 19. A total of 30 focus groups, with three to six teens each, will be held in Calgary and St. John’s, seeking opinions from students in public and private junior high and high schools.

“Youths can express themselves in their own words,” says Adorjan, who is part of the Department of Sociology in the Faculty of Arts.

“The study explores not only the social network platforms they’re using and what their experiences are, but also the messages they are receiving from various sources, such as their parents and teachers, about how to manage risk online.”

Digital divide between parents and teens becoming 'large gap'

While previous research has examined questions such as the extent of cyberbullying in schools, more needs to be done on “what young people are really thinking about the media they are using — how they are actually responding to the messages about how these risks should be managed online,” says Adorjan.

As adults grapple with cyber threats to teens ranging from identity theft and jihadi recruiters to child molesters, the digital divide between how parents and teens understand the technology has become “a very large gap,” he says.

Adorjan — who is a 39-year-old born before the Internet — remembers getting his first email account via Hotmail in the late 1990s and accessing it with a dial-up modem.

“It made that annoying sound when you logged in,” he says. “One of the challenges of doing this research is that the technology is changing so fast and there are new apps all the time.”

Compared to their parents — “digital immigrants” born before smartphones or the Internet — Adorjan says teens are “digital natives” who have never known anything else.

“When parents are interested in what their kids are doing online, they often think of Facebook when in fact that’s quite frankly old school now,” he says. “It’s where your grandparents hang out.”

Teens, instead, prefer to keep in touch with friends through apps such as Snapchat and Instagram. “Youths are still on Facebook, but they present a very light version of their lives, if you like,” says Adorjan.

Teens not enticed by the technology itself but how it allows them to stay connected

Youths don’t see social media as an example of technology “any more than a person who needs glasses sees the glasses as technology,” he says. “Teens are not enticed by the technology, per se, but rather how it allows them to stay connected with their peers.

"A lot of young people would rather be grounded in their room for a month and not see the sun, but still have access to their cellphones and social media because that is more important to them.”

It can lead to situations that can seem odd to older people, such as where teens are communicating via social media with friends who are in the same room.

“One of my favourite quotes is from a researcher in the U.S.,” says Adorjan. “This youth asks, incredulously, to the researcher, an adult: 'What did you do when you were a kid? Did you get on bikes and go to your friend’s house?’ And it was said without a trace of sarcasm. He was actually serious.”

‘When it comes to staying safe online, it all comes down to the individual'

Because the two-year study only started last June, any results are tentative. But so far, one conclusion seems to be that teens view themselves as ultimately responsible for their activities online, not anyone else, says Adorjan.

“I asked the focus groups what advice they would have for other young people, and they often just say, ‘Be careful, be responsible, don’t do anything stupid,’” he says.

“The message from schools, parents and the wider society is that when it comes to staying safe online, it all comes down to the individual. From the wider context, it is a neo-liberal approach to the management of risk, and youths are internalizing this.”

Adorjan and Ricciardelli’s study, "Cyber-Risk Youth and Community: Digital Citizenship in Canada," is being funded through an Insight Development Grant from the federal Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC).