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Researcher finds range of outcomes for teens using social media

Louann Van Zelst (C49, GC51) with pictured with Dean Barbara O'Keefe and Valkenburg

The 30th annual School of Communication Van Zelst Lecture featured Patti M. Valkenburg, who entertained and enlightened a large crowd on April 11 with her talk “The Magic of Media Effects: Challenges in Understanding Media Influences on Children.”

Valkenburg, the University Professor of Media, Youth, and Society at the Amsterdam School of Communications, is the founding director of the University of Amsterdam’s Center for Research on Children, Adolescents, and the Media, which is arguably the most productive research center studying children and the media in the world today.

The lecture is funded through a generous gift from the Van Zelst family, Louann Van Zelst (C49, GC51) (pictured, above right with Dean Barbara O’Keefe and Valkenburg) and the late Theodore Van Zelst (McC45, GMcC48).

Valkenburg shared some surprising research findings: one hundred percent of two-year-olds, for example, are able to immediately recognize the McDonalds logo; three percent of adolescent boys are serious pathological gamers (“they spend all their time gaming, and they have huge conflicts at home and at school,” she said); and social media, for all its naysayers, seems to have an overwhelmingly positive effect on teenagers. Valkenburg and her team investigated the effects of the activities of Dutch adolescents on social media sites with names like Sugarbabes and Superdudes. “We found positive effects on self-esteem, social competence, on the quality of existing friendship,” she said.

Valkenburg fielded questions about Newtown, Connecticut, the kinds of media she thinks are most beneficial for young children, and whether content providers are gearing new products to be more violent than before.

They also discovered, she added, that seven percent of the teens they investigated received mainly negative reactions to their online profiles and that these kids, in general, had lower self esteem. Not all was lost, however: When asked about her most positive research findings she mentioned the studies she’s conducted around social media.

In 2005, Valkenburg was named the most productive communications scholar in Europe. Her field, she said, is rapidly changing, and she and her colleagues plan to join forces with other scientists and scholars to help further the reach of their research. “We got a huge grant this year,” she said, that will fund “nine different disciplines coming together, geneticists, neuropsychologists. That’s the future, I think, for us.”

Photos by Blake Paine (C13)