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Hanging Out and Growing up with Social Media

David S. Peck
Azusa Pacific University

Nintendogs from Nintendo website

The relationship between human beings, their environment, and society has always been complex, intertwined, and interdependent. Some might argue the terms environment and society are one in the same. In social media, the media or utility serves as the conduit that connects the user and their worlds. Society represents the human beings using a profile or identity to create connections and shared meaning. Social media and the development of written language are similar in the construction and developmental process. Some aspects are linear and predictable, and other aspects of the developmental process and social media are unknown. In this paper, the author examines how media, and in particular, social media is a central part of many Westerner’s developmental processes by intertwining media psychology theory with his own family experience.

  • Citation
  • Author
Peck, D. (2008) Hanging Out and Growing up with Social Media. Media Psychology Review. Vol. 1(1)
David PeckDavid S. Peck is the Associate Vice President for University Relations at Azusa Pacific University. Peck has 17 years experience in marketing, public relations, and branding. He also has extensive experience in filmmaking for entertainment and higher education. Peck’s research interests are social media and adolescent behavior.

He lives in Southern California with his wife and four children between the ages of 5 and 13, a ready laboratory for his research interests. Peck has a Bachelor of Science degree in Marketing and a Master’s degree in Business Administration. He will receive his doctorate in Media Psychology in the coming year. d_peck@yahoo.com


Eleven kids ranging in age from four to twelve are sitting in a semi-circle on the floor as Abby reaches for her last present, a recycled gift bag with pink and white frilly paper sneaking out the top. Seven girls, Abby and her three siblings are gathered together to celebrate Abby’s eleventh birthday. Her birthday includes afternoon activities, a digital photo-shoot, dinner, cake, attending a play, and a sleep over. Several of the kids are excited as Abby has leaked her desire for a D.S. Lite, the new Nintendo handheld gaming console with WiFi capabilities, and remote connectibility. As she begins to remove the tissue, a large smile takes over as she pulls out a white box with large black letters that say D.S. Lite. The girls begin to scream and high -five each other as their excitement is fulfilled, and another tweenager is indoctrinated into the world of social media.

While it may not represent the likes of social networking sites like Facebook, Myspace, or Club Penguin, the Nintendo D.S. Lite and other similar consoles serve as a training ground for Social Media. Nintendogs, a pet simulation game was the talk of the evening as the girls worked together sharing their knowledge to help Abby learn how to care for her dog, walk her dog, teach her dog new tricks, and even comfort her dog. Jean Piaget best identified Abby’s practical intelligence and learning capability. “Its spontaneous grasp of the physical world will enable it to succeed in predicting phenomena long before it can explain them” (Singer, 1996, p. 126). This type of group play, or “hanging out” seems to resonate with today’s youth. “Hanging out” seems to be the phrase used by most adolescents. Whether it’s playing Nintendogs with a group of girls, or “poking a friend” on Facebook, the key to many child and adolescent activities today involves technology and social interaction.

Danah Boyd, Ph.D. candidate at the University of California-Berkley, and fellow at the Berkman Center for Internet and Society shares extensive findings and questions about the behavior identified in social media through interviews and observations in her paper sponsored by the MacArthur Foundation Series on Digital Learning, entitled Why Youth (Heart) Social Network Sites: The Role of Networked Publics in Teenage Social Life:

The rapid adoption of social network sites by teenagers in the United States and in many other countries around the world raises some important questions. Why do teenagers flock to these sites? What are they expressing on them? How do these sites fit into their lives? What are they learning from their participation? Are these online activities like face-to-face friendships – or are they different, or complementary (Boyd, 2007a, p. 2).

These questions help frame the discussion of developmental behavior as it relates to the ever-changing psychosexual and developmental aspects of children and adolescents engaged in social media. Lev Vygotsky’s thoughts on child development provide a framework of questions for discussion relevant for today’s children, teenagers, and the intersection of social media.

Vygotsky (1978) believed three fundamental issues offered insight as to the manner in which human development occurred. His questions were as follows:

  • What is the relationship between human beings and their environment, both physical and social?
  • What new forms of activity were responsible for establishing labor as the fundamental means of relating humans to nature and what are the psychological consequences of these forms of activity?
  • What is the nature of the relationship between the use of tools and the development of speech?

Boyd’s work in social media identified similar thoughts regarding youth engagement in culture and processes stating, “While particular systems may come and go, how youth engage through social network sites today provides long-lasting insights into identity formation, status negotiation, and peer-to-peer sociality” (Boyd, 2007a, p.1).

I have selected two questions to frame this discussion of “hanging out” and growing up with social media:

  • What is the relationship between human beings and their environment, both physical and social?
  • How (do) youth engage through social network sites today and (will it provide long-lasting insights) into identity formation, status negotiation, and peer-to-peer sociality?



The following definitions provide context for this emergent field as a foundation for understanding and future development. These definitions also provide insight as to how technology is being embedded into the culture, similar to the early adoption studies of the telephone, and the behavior related to its use and adoption.

Social Media is an umbrella term, defining all of the activities that come together in a utility that uses multiple communication mediums’ of words, pictures, or videos to create visual displays, picture-sharing opportunities, connection points, and the creation of personal meaning and community building opportunities. Social media uses the wisdom of crowds to connect people and information in a collaborative manner.

Social media can take many different forms, including message boards, weblogs, wikis, podcasts, pictures, and video. Technologies such as blogs, picture-sharing, vlogs, wall-postings, email, instant messaging, music-sharing, group creation, and voice over IP, to name a few. Examples of social media applications are Google (reference, social networking), Wikipedia (reference), MySpace (social networking), Facebook (social networking), Club Penguin (children’s social networking), iTunes (personal music), YouTube (social networking and video sharing), Second Life (virtual reality), and Flickr (photo sharing).

In an e-book from Spannerworks.com called What is social media?, another definition is provided. “Social media is best understood as a group of new kinds of online media which share most or all of the following characteristics: Participation, openness, conversation, community, and connectedness” (Spannerworks.com, 2007). This community-oriented connectedness aligns well with the interests of youth today as being involved with their friends. It is a critical aspect of their life meaning and development.

Social Behavior as it relates to the context of social media is the study of how people influence each other in their individual and collective behavior. This includes both the individual activities involved in crafting a perception of an individual in a setting where others may be present, as well as the changes that may occur due to group behavior and influence (Glassman, 2000).

Social Networking refers to the utilities that create collaboration through activities that people use to connect, develop relationships, and create personal myths. These sites and activities allow for self-identification and discovery; as well as self-expression through words, pictures and other mediums of communication. These sites base primary interactions around a user’s profile, an individual home page that provides an opportunity to customize their page with self-directed information, pictures, quotes, and widgets that help craft their online identity. Boyd provides an example, stating “Throughout the country, young people were logging in, creating elaborate profiles, publicly articulating their relationships with other participants, and writing extensive comments back and forth. By early 2006, many considered participation on the key social network site, MySpace, essential to being seen as cool at school” (2007, p. 1).

Social Networks are defined differently, as a related cousin to social networking. Linton Freeman and Cynthia Webster define social networks as “a structural form – or patterning of the ties that link social sectors and interaction” (1994, p. 223). Freeman and Webster visually describe the patterns in this manner: “…whenever human association is examined, we see what can be described as thick spots – relatively unchanging clusters or collections of individuals who are linked by frequent interaction and often by sentimental ties” (p. 223).

Social Cognition is the study of how people understand themselves and other people. The International Social Cognition Network states, “It is a level of analysis that aims to understand social psychological phenomena by investigating the cognitive processes that underline them” (2007). The processes that make up social cognition are perception, judgment and the memory of social stimuli. Utilities such as Facebook create social cognition experiences as individuals can create and change their identity with their pictures, and create engagement by presenting pictures and using words to connect, share and create meaning with other individuals. This developmental process helps in the shaping and sharing of one’s identity.

Social Psychology is the study of how social conditions affect individuals and groups. Social psychology is concerned with the areas of attitude, persuasion, cognitions, influence, group dynamics, prosocial behavior, and interpersonal attraction and behavior. The examination of attitudes and behavior and how they interact is a key focus of social psychologists.

Social Intelligence is defined as the non-cognitive social aptitudes that allow us to respond to an emotional situation. Aptitudes are perceived as being without thought. As we continue to learn more about social and emotional intelligence, we also learn that while perhaps different, the two also overlap. Relationships are the key and critical connection between emotional intelligence and social intelligence (Goleman, 2006).

Social Constructivism

The sophists focused on discovering the meaning of language that both reveals and conceals life’s meaning (Pearce, 2007). Plato, on the other hand, believed that we couldn’t know everything from experience; that we must have some innate knowledge (Knight, 1995). Dan McAdams in his 2005 book The Stories We Live By, provides an overview of the value of narratives and social constructivism stating, “This is what fools people: a man is always a teller of tales, he lives surrounded by his stories and the stories of others, he sees everything that happens to him through them; and he tries to live his life as if he were telling a story” (2005, p.1). Social constructionist Barnett Pearce states the following definition, “the idea that reality itself, or at least our knowledge of it, is, wholly or in part, the product of our own actions” (2007, p. 4).

Hanging Out

“Hanging out” is a term that has been used by youth throughout the generations. Stand by Me (Stephen King) is a classic story and example of four boys who spend the summer together “hanging out.” In this coming of age narrative, King describes the transition of these four boys to young men as they encounter numerous adventures that force them to deal with the realities of life, in the midst of their summer vacation. Erikson presents an interesting perspective that could be tied to the developmental aspects of “hanging out.” Erikson states, “…the self-esteem attached to the ego identity is based on the rudiments of skills and social techniques which assure a gradual coincidence of functional pleasure and actual performance, of ego ideal and social role” (Erikson, 1994, p.39).

These definitions provide a foundation, and opportunity to build on previous expert thought, as we look to construct meaning from today’s adolescent activity in social media. Today, media, technology and culture are critical components linked together in the development of community. According to David Giles, “the intersection of mass communication, culture, and technology” are key drivers of change (2003, p.7). These drivers of change provide the mechanism or mediums needed to create shared meaning, and the development of one’s ego, or personal myth. According to Piaget, this is a critical time period for youth and adolescents as they develop their understanding of language, communication, the transition from an egotistical mindset to an interest and care for others, as well as the development of abstract and deductive reasoning (Singer, 1996). Marshall McLuhan believed that each new medium shaped society, and that the media was simply an “extension of ourselves” (McLuhan, 1964, p.11). From this introduction, we transition into the first of the two questions discussed in this paper.

1. What is the relationship between human beings and their environment, both physical and social?

The relationship between human beings, their environment, and society has always been complex, intertwined, and interdependent. According to James Mark Baldwin, “Development is a process of involution as well as evolution, and the elements come to be hidden under the forms of complexity which they build up” (1895, p. 3). Some might argue the terms environment and society are one in the same. In social media, the media or utility serves as the conduit that connects the user and their worlds. Society represents the human beings using a profile or identity to create connections and shared meaning. Social media and the development of written language are similar in the construction and developmental process. Some aspects are linear and predictable, and other aspects of the developmental process and social media are unknown. Social media is an integration of technology, written language, pictures, symbols and socialization.

Vygotsky added a fresh perspective of the interaction of learning and development, complimenting Piaget’s early thoughts. Many at the time believed that development was required for learning. Vygotsky thought differently, stating that “learning trailed behind development” (1978, p. 80). This would lead Vygotsky to present that, “Development or maturation is viewed as a precondition of learning but never the result of it. Learning forms a superstructure over development, leaving the latter essentially unaltered (p. 80).

In discussing the innovation and adoption of this new environment called social media, Everett M. Rogers in his text Diffusion of Innovations provides an appropriate quote from Niccolo Machiavelli’s work, The Prince. He states:

There is nothing more difficult to plan, more doubtful of success, nor more dangerous to manage than the creation of a new order of things. . . whenever his enemies have the ability to attack the innovator, they do so with the passion of partisans, while the others defend him sluggishly, so that the innovator and his party alike are vulnerable (as cited by Rogers, 2003, p. 1).

The difficulty with the utility of social networking is not the adoption curve, but rather as Machiavelli states, “the danger in managing the creation of a new order of things” (2003, p.1), or this environment and the manner in which humans interact in it. Rogers provides a set of stages that can be used to address the management of this new order.

According to Rogers, the five stages are:

(1) Knowledge, when the individual is exposed to the innovation’s existence and gains an understanding of how it functions; (2) persuasion, when the individual forms a favorable or unfavorable attitude toward the innovation; (3) decision, when the individual engages in activities that lead to a choice to adopt or reject the innovation; (4) implementation, when the individual puts an innovation into use; and (5) confirmation, when the individual seeks reinforcement for an innovation-decision already made but may reverse the decision if exposed to conflicting messages about it (p. 217).

Modeling, and play theory, echoed by Piaget, Erikson, and Vygotsky are key aspects for today’s youth and their adaptation and adoption to innovations such as social media. Vygotsky states, “In play a child is always above his average age, above his daily behavior, in play it is as though he were a head taller than himself. While imitating their elders in culturally patterned activities, children generate opportunities for intellectual development” (1978, p. 129). Whether it is through watching television, playing video games, or interacting with Internet through a developmental web-based learning program, kids are exposed and encouraged to use multi-faced technology utilities at an early age.

Steven Johnson in his book Everything Bad is Good for You, presents an interesting scenario about the complexity of story-telling today, and how today’s youth are multidimensional in their processing of information.

As a father of a three-year-old, I can testify personally that you can watch (Finding) Nemo dozens of times and still detect new information with each viewing, precisely because the narrative floats so many distinct story arcs at the same time. And where the child’s mind is concerned, each viewing is training him or her to hold those multiple threads in consciousness, a kind of mental calisthenics (2005, p. 129).

This “Nemo effect,” as Johnson refers to it, is an example of the early training ground children receive, creating a natural flow for today’s youth from one screen (television) to another (computer and social media).

Gerald Lesser presents fascinating information about the early days of Sesame Street, and the lessons learned in using this medium as a method for teaching cognitive skills to children. In his book, Children and Television: Lessons from Sesame Street, Lesser states, “What psychologists call “modeling” occurs simply by watching others, without any direct reinforcement for learning and without any overt practice. The child imitates the model without being induced or compelled to do so. That learning can occur in the absence of direct reinforcement is a radical departure from earlier theories that regarded reward or punishment as indispensable to learning” (1974, p.23).

Rogers’ belief that humans are primarily social beings, and that relationships are compiled of face-to-face interactions through modeling and mirroring as we develop, creates an interesting tension as we compress this adoption rate due to technology. These new communication technologies will require a significant amount of study, as it represents major changes in human behavior (Rogers, 2003).

Sociologist, Robert Putnam, presents some interesting thoughts as it relates to the integration of a generation, social aspects of behavior, and the mindset change required for the adoption of innovations such as social media. According to Putnam, this type of change occurs when generational and social change occurs, simultaneously. This type of change is referred to as an “intracohort,” change. This change tends to relate to specific habits and tastes, and moves in a single direction as the change is identified within each age group. Intracohort changes move easily in either direction, according to the likes and dislikes of an age group. Sometimes the changes are significant, and sometimes they are not. Due to the technology available to youth today, much of the social media adoption may be due to intracohort changes (Putnam, 2000).

2. How (do) youth engage through social network sites today and (will it provide long-lasting insights) into identity formation, status negotiation, and peer-to-peer sociality?

As Boyd’s question sets the stage for discussion, it’s important to provide context as to the growth of social media. Amanda Lenhart and Mary Madden present interesting thoughts based on their research of the new tools and technology used by teens in their 2007 study titled, Social Networking Sites and Teens: An Overview. Lenhart and Madden state:

Looking at a general picture of teen Internet adoption, American teens are more wired now than ever before. According to our latest survey, 93% of all Americans between 12 and 17 years old use the Internet. In 2004, 87 % were Internet users, and in 2000, 73% of teens went online. Not only are more teens online, but they are also using the Internet more intensely now than in the past. Eighty-nine percent of online teens use the Internet at least once a week. The percentage of online teens who report using the internet daily has increased from 42% in 2000 and 51 % in 2004 to 61% in 2006. Of the 61% of teens who report using the Internet daily in 2006, 34% use the Internet multiple times a day and 27% use the Internet once a day. If teens log onto the Internet daily they are more likely to log on multiple times, rather than once per day (p.3).

The report also states that girls ages 15-17 demonstrate higher levels of use in creating social networking sites and online profiles. “Seventy percent of older girls have used an online social network compared with fifty-four percent of older boys, and seventy percent of older girls have created an online profile, while only fifty-seven percent of older boys have done so” (p.3).

Boyd believes that four key aspects play a role in this wave of adoption stating, “social network sites are a type of networked public with four properties that are not typically present in face-to-face public life: persistence, searchability, exact copyability, and invisible audiences. These properties fundamentally alter social dynamics, complicating the ways in which people interact“ (2007, p.2). Why would these be important points for today’s youth engaged in social media?

My SpaceMcAdams helps provide context as he talks about the developmental process, and changes youth go through during adolescence, stating: Because of certain biological, cognitive, and social changes that do seem to occur in the adolescent years, the stage is psychosocially set for the emergence of identity as a new problem in life at this time. The problem emerges in different ways for different adolescents, and it emerges at different rates and intensities. Not everyone experiences an identity crisis. Yet most are challenged, in one way or another, to begin the search for a new self (McAdams, 1993, p.75).

This collusion of discovery along with drastic physical and psychological changes creates a desire for identity creation and celebration. This behavior, documented by McAdams, aligns with Boyd’s points for adoption as social media enables an invisible discovery of self, an ability to be an individual or emulate others, a freedom in searching for others who share mutual interests, and allows ultimately for a level of insulation as it relates to the persistence given through social media.

Boyd shares some key thoughts about today’s adolescent behavior in her paper, Socializing digitally. According to Boyd, “For many teens, hanging out has moved online. Teens chat on IM for hours, mostly keeping each other company and sharing entertaining cultural tidbits from the web and thoughts of the day. The same is true on MySpace, only in a much more public way. MySpace is both the location of hanging out and the cultural glue itself” (2007, p.2).

Central to the medium of social media is the individual opportunity to create personal profiles with as much depth, breadth, and information as one desires to provide. McAdams cites Jean Piaget, stating, “In adolescence many people enter the cognitive stage of formal operations. At this time in the life cycle we are first able to think about the world and ourselves in highly abstract terms. In formal operations, one is able to reason about what is and what might be in terms of verbally stated and logically deduced hypotheses” (1993, p.77). The tools provided by these utilities enable the ability to create an identity through videos, pictures, words, interests, and hobbies.

Today’s youth are more open in providing personal information, in addition to regular updates through pictures, posts and calendars as to their day-to-day engagements, plans, and aspirations. The information is posted live, has a tendency to be their raw unedited thoughts, and is readily available for the world to see. Venture capitalist Kevin Compton talks about this phenomenon and how it has the potential to negatively affect their future. At the same time however, he believes that this genuineness provides employers with a view that is many times difficult to discover through employee interview processes.

The ability to share profiles and personal information through pictures, words, and various relationship-oriented applications is of significant interest to this generation. Lenhart and Madden provide research supporting this point. According to the Pew Internet American Life Project, Lenhart and Madden report, “Teens say social networking sites help them manage their friendships” (Lenhart, 2007). The research states:

1. Ninety-one percent of all social networking teens say they use the sites to stay in touch with friends they see frequently, while eighty-two percent use the sites to stay in touch with friends they rarely see in person.

2. Seventy-two percent of all social networking teens use the sites to make plans with friends; forty-nine percent use the sites to make new friends.

3. Older boys who use social networking sites (ages 15-17) are more likely than girls of the same age to say that they use social networking sites to make new friends (60% vs. 46%).

4. Older boys who use social networking sites are more than twice as likely as older girls to say they use the sites to flirt; twenty-nine percent report this compared with just thirteen percent of older girls (2007, p.2).

Because of the technology, and the portability of the new public of social media, Skelly was able to take it on the road, maintaining connections, relationships, and his community of influence. It never occurred to him that he would be more than 10,000 miles away, set apart from family and friends, and forced to learn new things. It was simply a blending of the old (through social media) with this new adventure.

The medium of social media creates opportunities for users to use their pictures and words so that they connect and create meaning with their friends and others. This powerful medium allows for new connections, regardless of the location, and in real-time. Today’s youth are globally enabled, and locally connected. As they begin to travel the world, how will this affect, or enhance their relationships? Will distance release its power as an influence on who we are, and what we choose to do?

Developmental psychologists Patricia Greenfield and Zheng Yan provide insight into the behavior in this emergent technology in their article Children, Adolescents, and the Internet: A New Field of Inquiry in Developmental Psychology. In their article, published in Developmental Psychology they state:

It becomes a complex virtual universe behind a small screen on which developmental issues play out in old and new ways, offering new views into the thoughts, feelings, and behaviors of children and adolescents. This universe will continue to expand as Web-connected cell phones and other new Internet applications emerge. Thus, existing theoretical models, research programs, and methodological techniques in developmental psychology are both challenged and stimulated by interactions between youth and the Internet (2006 p. 394).

Vera John-Steiner and Ellen Souberman, editors for Vgoytsky’s work, Mind in Society share interesting thoughts held by Vygotsky that tie the integration of modeling, learning, and play together for the development of today’s youth. They state, “Rather, his concern is with the consequences of human activity as it transforms both nature and society” (Vygotsky, 1978, p.129). This infused his believe that human development was not linear, but occurred at different times, for different people, throughout their life.

Vygotsky summarized this thought, stating:

Although the labor of men and women to improve their world is rooted in the material conditions of their era, it is also affected by their capacity to learn from the past, to imagine, and to plan for the future (1978, p. 129).

These are powerful observations identified by Vygotsky in the early 1900’s that are appropriate and relevant today.

Boyd shares similar thoughts, as it relates directly to the integration of teenage development and social media. She defines social media as a public – a space that allows for the social development of teenagers today through the sharing of identities with friends and other albeit online. Boyd (2007a) states:

Publics play a crucial role in the development of individuals. By interacting with unfamiliar others, teenagers are socialized into society. Without publics, there is no coherent society. Publics are where norms are set and reinforced, where common ground is formed. Learning society’s rules requires trial and error, validation and admonishment; it is knowledge that teenagers learn through action, not theory. Society’s norms and rules only provide the collectively imagined boundaries. Teenagers are also tasked with deciding how they want to fit into the structures that society provides. Their social identity is partially defined by themselves, partially defined by others. Learning through impression management is key to developing a social identity. Teenagers must determine where they want to be situated within the social world they see and then attempt to garner the reactions to their performances that match their vision. This is a lifelong process, but one that must be supported at every step (p. 21).

Boyd validates Vygotsky’s timeless truths as they are significant in assessing effects of technology and the development of social media for adolescents. The integration of words, pictures, technology and the creation of one’s identity is providing a foundation for change and adoption unique in history. This shared-learning provides adolescents a confidence in perceived and real scaffolding needed for development. Vygotsky believed it is “the scientists task to reconstruct the origin and course of development of behavior and consciousness. Not only does every phenomenon have its history, but this history is characterized by changes both qualitative (changes in form and structure and basic characteristics) and quantitative” (1978, p. 7). The real constant in adolescent development is change itself, both in regard to the adolescent, and the surroundings. With so much change, so much engagement, and so much opportunity, t will be fascinating to watch how this generation utilizes the tools given. Will they seize an opportunity through the advent of social media to continue to share and care, as they grow older and develop a framing of live? Will they continue to create shared meaning with an eye toward social justice, benefiting themselves… and others in the process?

Only time will tell, as we determine that the message and medium are inexplicably tied together in the development of adolescents (McLuhan, 2003). As we evaluate what it means to grow up with social media, perhaps Mark Zuckerberg, founder of Facebook provides context in the Fast Company article, Hacker. Dropout. CEO, stating, “I’m here to build something for the long term, anything else is a distraction.”


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