The Benefits of Friending a Grownup

friend request

Drexel researchers suggests that teens who have adult role models in their social media circles develop better habits for online interaction, including self-censoring, and boundary-setting skills. 

Friend requested by mom, dad and the math teacher? When teen and adult worlds collide on social media it can be weird and awkward at times, but research from Drexel University suggests these socially messy interactions can turn out to be valuable life experiences.

Researchers from Drexel’s College of Computing & Informatics and the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign’s Graduate School of Library and Information Science, who study interaction on social media, recently published a study suggesting that it might be worth it for schools to take a closer look at their social media policies and allow for positive interactions between teachers, administrators and their students.

“What we find is that in many cases interactions between adults and teens in this context, can be opportunities to model appropriate social media behavior or for teens to build beneficial connections with people who are different from themselves,” said Andrea Forte, PhD, an assistant professor in the College and lead author of the study “The Strength of Awkward Ties: Online Interactions Between High School Students and Adults,” which will be published in the Proceedings of the Association for Computing Machinery’s Conference on Supporting Group Work (GROUP).

Safely allowing teens to step outside comfort zones is one of the biggest benefits of social media, according to the study.

“When family, friends, teachers, romantic interests, and coworkers mix and mingle, the result is social awkwardness,” Forte and co-authors Denise Agosto, PhD, also an associate professor in the College of Computing & Informatics; Michael Dickard, and Rachel Magee write in the study. But this uncomfortable mix can give rise to a level of access to information that might not be achievable within the familiar confines of a tight circle of friends.

“Weak ties are often connections to people who are less like you and who can provide access to diverse kinds of information and resources,” they write. “In other words, being connected to others who are very similar to yourself can throttle information flow.

Forte and colleagues’ findings are based on surveys and interviews of students in two public high schools in the United States — one with a policy that strictly limits social media interaction between teachers and students and one that with a policy that is more leniently enforced and social media interaction is publicly embraced.

They found that most teen-adult interactions among the study participants fell into three categories: building community — camaraderie and connection outside the classroom; finding information — questions about assignments or how to solve problems; and supporting the development of online skills — learning to curate and self-censor social media posts by better understanding who will be seeing them.

“What we realized from our conversations with the students and survey results was that these relationships aid in the students’ maturation process not only by modeling appropriate behavior, but also getting the teens to think before they post,” Forte said. “Adding adults, from teachers to parents, to a teen’s social media environment fundamentally shifts their online behavior and how they perceive the norms of the medium.”

One study participant noted “all teachers and the students follow each other. I use that as a reason to censor my tweets. I think ‘how would [the principal] feel if he saw that? So I should really think before I post.”

Learning this sort of self-censoring behavior at a young age could, the study suggests, be just as important as creating better privacy management tools.

The study acknowledges tropes of predatory adult males on social media are still prevalent among high school students, but Forte suggests that establishing healthy relationships with adults on social media can help teens understand where the boundary for appropriate interaction lies.

“It's much more common for young people to be bullied and harassed by their own peers and family than pursued by unknown predators. Yet the image of the ‘creepy old guy’ often dominates discussions of internet safety,” Forte said. “I think developing expectations and norms of civil behavior and practicing boundary setting are critical skills that require attention both online and off. Schools can help establish those skills and expectations by training teachers to set an example online instead of prohibiting these interactions.”

While many of the students consider this to be an awkward melding of social circles, calling interactions with “big brother” “creepy” and “embarrassing” — on the downbeat they still recognize the presence adult authorities in their social media as a sign of caring and compassion.

The study is part of a multi-year project by that is seeking to understand how teens are using social media as a resource for meeting their information needs. The researchers’ hope is that these findings will guide new social media policies for libraries and schools.