Nobody is saying let your kids lock themselves away in their rooms and spend all day, every day, on Facebook; connect over MySpace; or text message only and not talk. But a three-year study funded by Chicago's MacArthur Foundation found that in 2008, kids use digital communication to build their friendships and enhance their literacy in the media that matters in the 21st century.
"Whether it is creating profiles whether it is friending, whether it is figuring out how to make parts of yourself public and that public nature is going to stay public for a very long time, so kids are learning how to grapple with those kinds of dynamics," said Connie Yawley, MacArthur Foundation.
Everyone knows Internet socializing only is inherently unhealthy. But in the first big study to show what teens are actually doing with digital media, researchers found that parents should relax; their kids are essentially where they need to be when they're in front of a screen -- either mixing it up socially or using the tools to discover more about the world -- and their interest in it.
"I think the potential is there for us to be raising a new generation of young people who have grown up with technology and can be self directed in their learning, on their time schedules," said Dr. Mimi Ito, lead researcher.
It's likely a hard lesson for parents, that lots of this is all pretty much good. But there is a simple reason why what's being presented as the new reality should give adults pause about their approach to regulating screen time for their kids.
"Those of us who did not grow up digitally savvy tend to look at the superficial aspects of what is happening online and we see a misspelling. What we don't see is the broader communication that is going on and the deep interest and passions kids are beginning to explore online," said Ito.
They are benefits one Chicago Public Schools principal, a Facebook and MySpace user himself, extols with a big caveat.
"It is always about the supervision. Parents need to keep an eye on their kids. You can't just send them to their rooms and give them a remote and a computer and expect them to do what is right. You have to make sure that you are constantly supervising them," said Krish Mohip, CPS principal.
And better communication is the key, communication that researchers stress is all about teaching kids judgment on how to be media literate.
As far as dangers on the Internet go, the researchers found what one might call "stranger danger" and other Internet-related threats to kids are relatively rare, and that cuts across race, class and gender lines. The study found the vast majority of American teens have the judgment to use digital communication wisely, even if they don't want you to be their friend on Facebook or MySpace.