This week's copy of U.S. News & World Report includes a report on a study by social psychologists at the University of Texas-Austin who found that college students are able to present their personalities quite accurately on Facebook--even more accurately than they sometimes imagine.
The study, which was presented last March at the International Conference on Weblogs and Social Media, is available here.
As an addendum to that article, there's evidence from other researchers that the story is a little more complicated when it comes to MySpace, which is still much more popular among teenagers. (Facebook began as a networking site for college campuses.)
Larry Rosen, a professor of psychology at California State University-Dominguez Hills and author of the forthcoming Me, MySpace and I: Parenting the Net Generation, has conducted several surveys of California teenagers with MySpace profiles, and he has found that, among the younger crowd, online networking can play a tremendous role in a person's psychological development.
"At the college level, Facebook is probably a closer representation," Rosen says. "I would guess that doing the same study on MySpace would produce lower correlations."
In the language of personality development, psychologists refer to an early process of "identity diffusion," which later--often around the time one is settled in college--is replaced by "identity achievement." For high schoolers, Rosen says, the MySpace page often serves as a personality laboratory, in which they test out new images and personas online among the focus group of their cyberfriends.
"I think one of the big benefits of MySpace for these kids is that they get to practice being different," Rosen says. This can play out from the more innocuous music preferences or personal slogans to important issues of sexuality and group identity.
There is no question in Rosen's mind that MySpace has become as integrated into the social life of many teenagers as the telephone was two generations ago. Stricter schedules at school--20 minutes for lunch and six minutes between classes--and highly protective parents mean that the computer is increasingly the best outlet for socializing, he says. Meanwhile, MySpace consistently comes under fire for presenting its own dangers from sexual predators, though Rosen argues that such incidents are somewhat exaggerated.
But it remains, Rosen says, the outlet that many parents are most comfortable with their children patronizing, particularly after dark.