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Facebook for homework – face-to-face for emotional support

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Parents spend a lot of time telling their kids to get their faces away from their screens and it would seem that teenage girls actually would prefer to do that – unless it’s homework.

A recent study by researchers at Western Sydney University and Macquarie University has found that most Australian teenage girls prefer to seek emotional support in-person, rather than using social media or communication apps. But they are quick to seek support for homework through these channels, and the speed with which they are willing to do so might have a negative impact on their problem solving.

The study team, including Dr Erin Mackenzie of Western Sydney University and Dr Anne McMaugh and Associate Professor Penny Van Bergen of Macquarie University, surveyed 186 Australian adolescent girls. They found that on average, girls sought academic support online once a week.

Most girls sought emotional support online less than once a week, while ten-percent sought emotional support online daily.

Most prefer to discuss their problems face-to-face

Interviews with 31 of the girls showed that approximately two-thirds would prefer to discuss their problems face-to-face instead of using social media.

‘Girls perceived digital support to be poorer in quality than face-to-face support,’ the researchers write. ‘They were particularly concerned about limitations to privacy and the disclosure of confidential information. Several maladaptive behaviours such as using digital support seeking to conceal or avoid emotion were identified.’

Common problems with online support included the fear that sensitive messages would be shared with others; the possibility of misinterpretation leading to poorer support; and a lack of physical contact.

‘I think I’d be better talking to somebody face-to-face, so that they can actually help me,’ said one participant. ‘They’d be able to comfort me in a way that text wouldn’t really do anything for. It’s just words instead of actual feelings.’

A common worry was that girls feared that seeking emotional support online could undermine their friendships.

Concerns about trusting friends online

Research said that many of the girls interviewed were concerned about their ability to trust their friends online – some girls reported avoiding seeking emotional support electronically; others identified strategies such as carefully editing their electronic disclosures to minimise their risk.’

The researchers note that the availability of online support seems beneficial, with girls being able to access their support networks at any time of day. Many girls identified this as a key benefit when seeking academic support online, as digital support seeking allowed them to access help immediately while completing homework. However, quick responses have their downsides too.

‘It is possible that expecting and receiving support as soon as a minor problem is presented could limit adolescents’ capacity to independently solve problems or regulate their own emotion,’ said the researchers.

‘The continual need for support may also create an additional source of stress for the friends who are expected to provide support and the potential to increase exposure to negative aspects of social support, such as co-rumination.’

Some attitudes for concern

Many students surveyed recognised these problems. The group that preferred online support, however, displayed attitudes that might be a cause for concern, such as wishing to avoid emotional expression, which has been linked to depression in adolescents. The researchers also raised a concern about expedient academic help seeking, whereby some girls asked friends for answers to homework online rather than for help to solve problems.

The prevalence of digital academic support seeking suggests that this is an important way in which adolescent girls cope with school-related stress.

The researchers said that while it is possible that adolescents could benefit from some forms of digital academic help seeking (e.g. asking for more information about homework), there are others (e.g. expedient help seeking and referring to peers as soon as a problem with homework in encountered) that may have negative implications for academic functioning.

See the report – Erin Mackenzie, Anne McMaugh & Penny Van Bergen. (2020). ‘Digital support seeking in adolescent girls: A qualitative study of affordances and limitations’, Cyberpsychology: Journal of Psychosocial Research on Cyberspace.

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