The sullen teenager who lurks in his room surfing the Internet for hours on end is not being antisocial and withdrawn. He is actually building his social skills and civic awareness, according to research.

Far from creating an individualistic and self-centered generation that shuns social interaction or community involvement, as many parents and teachers fear, chat rooms and message boards are fostering a new public spirit among young people and helping them to develop their personalities and make friends, scientists say.

Two studies of online communities suggest that the Internet has replaced shopping centers and youth clubs as the place where young people form their identities and meet peers.

Regular users of teen chat rooms tend to be more engaged with their communities than the rest of their age group, and their online identities play an important role in the self-discovery of adolescence, researchers said.

Though young people who spend hours in front of a screen may appear antisocial to their families, they are generally using it to socialize with school friends and people who share their interests.

Justine Cassell, professor of communication studies at Northwestern University, who presented research at the American Association for the Advancement of Science conference in St. Louis, said: "The Internet is not diminishing community activity, but simply transferring it to online communities. Young people who use them are getting just as much practice in leadership and social skills and community involvement as they did before the Internet. Involvement might not take place in the school gymnasium or around the campfire, but instead in online communities in the glow of computer screens."

A second study by Danah Boyd, also of Northwestern, examined the way that young people use MySpace.com, which was recently bought by News Corporation, parent company of The Times and of FOXNews.com.

The Web site, which is the fifth-most viewed in America, allows its 56 million members to create online profiles and correspond with people with similar interests.

Boyd found that members, most of whom are teenagers, use the site to develop their identities and to meet friends or form new relationships.

Despite a spate of recent stories about pedophiles and stalkers targeting the site, most users experience few problems with unwanted contact from adults. Most simply ignore and delete any unwanted posts, Boyd said.

"It is about identity production — how I fit into society, who am I, who are the cool teachers in school," she added. "It's a new forum for hanging out that creates new publics. The burger joints where kids used to meet are gone and malls are now banning teenagers who aren't with adults. This is the sort of place they are going instead."

Previous research has found that extensive television viewing has a negative effect on children's social skills, and studies have linked excessive video gaming to obesity and social isolation.

Few studies, however, have investigated the effects on young people of the more interactive forms of information technology such as online communities and chat rooms.

Professor Cassell's work has focused on Junior Summit, a closed online community of more than 3,000 10 to 16-year-olds.

"There is a perception that young people are spending all their time doing something damaging here, and my research suggests that that is not the case," she said.

"We have to ask ourselves whether we are continuing to provide the kind of space that young people need to develop social skills," Cassell added. "Participation in Internet forums demonstrates beyond doubt that children do want to be social and do not want to be antisocial. In the absence of networks to create peers in the real world, they will go online to make peers, create an identity and build self-esteem."

Child's play

— 92 percent of British children have used the Internet on a school computer, and 75 per cent have at home

— 19 percent have Internet access in their bedrooms

— 41 percent use the Internet daily, a further 43 percent use it at least once a week. Only 3 percent said they were non-users, compared with 22 per cent of parents

— 21 percent use chat rooms

— 46 percent have given personal information to someone they met online and 8 percent have had a face-to-face meeting with an online friend

Source: UK Children Go Online

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