With his gaze fixed on a tiny screen, hearing plugged by earbuds and fingers flying, the average teenager may look like a disaster in the making: socially stunted, terminally distracted and looking for trouble. But look beyond the dizzying array of beeping, buzzing devices and the incessant multitasking, say psychologists, and today's digital kids may not be such a disaster after all.
Far from hampering adolescents' social skills or putting them in harm's way, as many parents have feared, electronics appear to be the path by which children today develop emotional bonds, their own identities, and an ability to communicate and work with others.
In fact, children most likely to spend lots of time on social media sites are not the least well-adjusted but the healthiest psychologically, suggests an early, but accumulating, body of research.
In one new study, 13- and 14-year-olds were found to interact on social network sites such as Facebook and MySpace simply in ways that were consistent with their offline relationships and patterns of behavior. And of the 86% of children who used social media sites (a number that reflects the national average), participants who were better adjusted in their early teens were more likely to use social media in their early 20s, regardless of their age, gender, ethnicity or their parents' income.
Adolescents are largely using social networking sites to keep in touch with friends they already know, not to converse with strangers, said the author of that research, University of Virginia psychologist Amori Yee Mikami.
"So parents of well-adjusted teens may have little to worry about regarding the way their children behave when using social media," Mikami added. "It's likely to be similarly positive behavior."