Findings from this study suggest that youths may use social networking websites to enact their long-standing face-to-face patterns of interaction. After accounting for demographic factors, we found that youths who were better adjusted at 13–14 years of age, as indicated by having less observed negativity in face-to-face peer interactions and fewer self-reported depressive symptoms, were more likely to be using social networking websites at 20–22 years of age. In addition, youths at age 20–22 who self-reported more positivity in their closest friendship were more likely to be using social networking websites.
Among the group of youths with social networking web pages, the presence of higher positivity and lower negativity in a dyadic peer interaction in early adolescence each predicted a greater number of friends on the website. Higher observed positivity in the peer interaction and lower parent-reported delinquent behaviors predicted a greater number of friends posting comments indicating connection. Higher peer sociometric status at baseline predicted a greater number of friends posting comments indicating support. Early adolescent delinquent behaviors predicted the presence of hostility in the participant's “About Me” section, and depressive symptoms predicted the presence of photos on the website that might be considered inappropriate. Females were more likely to have friends posting supportive comments than were males, but the predictive relationships between early adolescent adjustment and young adult online communication did not differ by gender.
Analyses further suggested that concurrent social and behavioral adjustment was also associated with similar patterns of communication online. Self- and peer-reported positive friendship quality was concurrently associated with more friends posting supportive comments online; self-reported positivity was also associated with a larger number of friends. Self-reported negativity in the friendship predicted fewer friends posting comments indicating connection; peer-reported negativity predicted fewer friends posting supportive comments. Concurrent peer reports of the participants' rule-breaking behavior was associated with more posted pictures of the participant engaging in inappropriate actions.
Taken together, these results are consistent with existing developmental theory that youths display cross-situational continuity in their interpersonal interactions and suggest that the conceptualization of continuity may be extended into the online domain. Findings also highlight the potential importance of establishing positive peer relationships in the developmental period between early adolescence and young adulthood, suggesting that sociometric status and friendship quality at 13–14 years of age may set the stage for youths' relationship quality at 20–22 years of age. Further, indicators of delinquent and depressive psychopathology in early adolescence may manifest themselves in young adult relationships, suggesting that adjustment patterns in early adolescence can carry long-lasting effects.
Our findings diverge from previous studies suggesting low correspondence between online and face-to-face relationships and that maladjusted youths are drawn to the internet. However, previous studies were conducted when far fewer households had access to online technology. Given the high degree to which social networking web pages are used by youths today, it is more likely that this represents a normative way of communicating. Social networking web pages also differ from previous internet communication tools (such as instant messaging and e-mail) in that they support communication with many friends and encourage users to recognize connections between individuals. The graphical interface of the web page allows users to share information with friends in a vivid, easily accessible manner. In short, the web has changed rapidly enough that studies based on usage from the year 2000 may not reflect the impact of sites explicitly designed to facilitate social networking on youths' interactions.
Nonetheless, our finding that the best adjusted youths (both in early adolescence and in young adulthood) were those using online social communication as young adults may specifically pertain to social networking websites and not other online activities. Perhaps youths with psychopathology were spending large amounts of time online, but in other media not assessed as part of this study. We speculate that well-adjusted youths may use social networking websites in which visible communication is prominent, whereas inept youths may prefer online activities where they have greater anonymity. This hypothesis is supported by findings that people with large face-to-face social networks are more likely to use the internet to communicate with friends and family and less likely to use the internet to communicate with strangers (Bessiere, Kiesler, Kraut, & Boneva, 2008
Strengths of this study include the longitudinal design and observational measures of friendship quality, both in face-to-face relationships and online. There is nearly complete independence of method variance in primary analyses. The use of peer nominations to assess sociometric status is rare, particularly in a study with adolescent participants. Further, social networking websites represent a novel, observational medium for assessing peer relationships that has high ecological validity.
A significant limitation of this study is the lack of online relationship measures at the early adolescent assessment point. Because social networking websites were started very recently (Facebook and MySpace, e.g., were both founded in 2004 but did not achieve widespread adoption until later), it was not possible to assess this type of online social communication when the participants entered the study in 1998–1999. In addition, in 1998–1999, it was uncommon for youths in early adolescence, the age of the participants in this study, to be using e-mail, instant messaging, or chat rooms; at that time, these types of online communication tools were predominantly used by college students. Nonetheless, our study was not able to control for online communication use at baseline, which limits the conclusions that may be drawn. In the future, we will be able to use indicators of online social communication in the important objectives of prospectively predicting changes in youths' social and behavioral adjustment. We speculate that online use in and of itself will not contribute to adjustment but rather that positive social communication and friendship quality online will further enhance social–emotional functioning, whereas negative online relationships will predict increasing adjustment problems.
Another limitation of the present study was the relatively small sample size for the analyses limited to the participants with coded web pages. The high percentage of participants who did not give permission to code their page raises the concern that the sample may not reflect the population of social networking web page users, although we did not find any evidence that individuals who consented differed from those who did not consent on any of the nine baseline measures of demographics and adjustment. A further limitation is that the baseline sociometric measure, modified for use with an adolescent sample, may not fully capture the peer acceptance of youths in the way that such measures do for elementary school–aged children.
In sum, although earlier studies concluded that online social relationships were nearly always of poorer quality than face-to-face relationships, the results from the current study instead suggest continuity between youths' face-to-face and online communication patterns, friendship quality, and behavioral adjustment. In a well-known cartoon for The New Yorker
), a dog in front of a computer says to his canine companion, “on the Internet, nobody knows you're a dog” (p. 61). On the basis of the current findings, however, it is perhaps more accurate to say “on the internet, you behave like the dog that you are.”