ST. LOUIS – Some might call it unproductive. Or maybe a bad habit. Or just a frivolous distraction. Or even dangerous.

Julianne Howell, a freshman at St. Joseph’s Academy, calls her daily Facebook routine time well spent.

“It’s like a social connection,” she said. “It’s not a waste of time. It’s like talking on the phone – that isn’t a waste of time.”

Howell’s justification for the hours she spends on the social networking site is dead on, according to a study released today by the MacArthur Foundation. A team of researchers working on the foundation’s “Digital Youth Project” concluded that interaction with new media such as Facebook is increasingly becoming an essential part of becoming a competent citizen in the digital age.

And further, all that Web surfing isn’t necessarily eroding the intelligence or initiative of the young generation.

“It may look like kids are wasting a lot of time online, but they’re actually learning a lot of social, technical and also media literacy skills,” said Mizuko Ito, a researcher at the University of California, Irvine who led the study.

A team of researchers conducted more than 800 interviews of youths and their parents, and spent more than 5,000 hours observing teens on sites such as Facebook, MySpace and YouTube. The goal was to find out how youths use digital media, such as social networking sites and video games, to understand and participate in society.

Some of their findings should be no surprise to teens or their parents.

For instance, teens like to hang out with their friends online. They learn social skills online. They flirt online.

They develop interests, express themselves creatively, and give each other feedback – all online.

But the kicker?

All that Internet time isn’t rotting their brains. Actually, it’s almost necessary, according to the study.

Kids denied access to new media, because their family can’t afford it or because their parents, school or library restrict their access or time on social networking sites, are likely to be short on skills that members of their generation are expected to possess, the researchers concluded.

The research was funded by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, a social advocacy group that focuses, in part, on the effect of technology on children and society.

The study isn’t the first to suggest youths use new media in productive ways. Another study released in September by the Pew Internet and American Life Project suggested that teens use video games to stay in touch with friends – and that some games may even encourage youths to become involved in their communities.

But that’s not the impression most adults have of digital media, according to the MacArthur study. Adults largely underestimate the value of new technology and tend to view online activity as a risky or unproductive distraction.

“There hasn’t been a really good understanding of how kids participate online,” Ito said.

Much of the study focused on what the study calls “hanging out” online.

In the past, teens’ hanging out has involved face-to-face interaction, whether at a mall, a movie theater or a friend’s house. Parents have long pushed back against what can seem to be excessive, idle socializing.

But the study notes there is value to at least a reasonable amount of hanging out, be it a physical interaction or meeting up online.

“It’s really about reinforcing a social connection,” Ito said.

Basically, hanging out is good, at least in moderation, and kids are now doing a lot of it online.

There are, of course, legitimate concerns about teens’ Internet use.

For example, the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children has been tracking online harassment and sexual solicitation of children and youths for years. And while the group concludes that teens are becoming more savvy in resisting such threats, it says those dangers persist.

The MacArthur study didn’t seek to refute the fact that surfing poses safety risks related to online predators and cyber bullying. But Ito said other research suggests kids are more likely to get in trouble out in the “real” world than online.

“We don’t think that kids are engaging in activities online that are any riskier than they would have experienced prior to their going online,” she said.

Some young people will blow off homework to spend time online. But, Ito said, some kids have always found excuses to avoid schoolwork.

The team of 28 researchers also made these determinations:

-Teens expect privacy online. Even if hundreds of “friends” can see their Facebook profiles, they expect their parents to stay out.

-Youths are mostly “hanging out” online with friends they first met in person, not strangers they met on a website.

-Social networking sites are used to publicly signal the existence and intensity of relationships, whether with friends or romantic partners.

-Creating profiles on social networking sites allows young people creatively express themselves and develop a visual identity. They get feedback from their peers on the same sites.

-Teens tend to understand the social benefits of using digital media while adults often see it as a “waste of time.”

Stacey Carman, whose 14-year-old daughter Eleanor has a Facebook account, said she doesn’t worry her daughter spends too much time online. Carman, of Ladue, Mo., said she worries that all the informal writing Eleanor does on the site may be teaching her bad grammar, but she generally trusts her daughter to be responsible online.

Still, Carman said she’s wary of claims that the site is somehow an integral part of her daughter’s social development.

“I don’t know that you get that out of Facebook,” she said. “You can find a study that says about anything.”

(c) 2008, St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

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Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.

AP-NY-11-19-08 2238EST

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