The Internet and adolescent social capital: who benefits more from Internet use?



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The purpose of this study was (1) to capture the digital divide in adolescent specific computer and online activities, and (2) to understand each online activity's meanings in adolescent social development or social capital. To assess the issue of the digital divide, the present study examined the sociodemographic, neighborhood, family, and child characteristic factors which influence each type of computer and online activity. To identify how online and computer activities can influence social capital, the present study examined diverse outcomes related to social capital which could be obtained from each online activity, and tested models explaining the relationships among sociability, Internet use, and social outcomes. The data used in the present study came from the Panel Study of Income Dynamics Child Development Supplement. The sample was 1,312 adolescents ages 12 to 18. This nationally representative dataset includes measures of computer and Internet use, diverse indicators of adolescent social behaviors and social relations, and time diaries that provide records of how and with whom they spent their time. The data were analyzed by regression and structural equation modeling. According to the findings, social economic status including family income to needs ratio, parental education, and neighborhood quality was a significant factor explaining frequent use of the Internet and a computer. However, among users, these factors were not significant in predicting the amount of time spent using a computer. Race, maternal employment, gender, and age explained adolescent different type of computer and Internet use. Analysis of the social impacts of Internet and computer use suggests that Internet and computer use have different impacts depending on the purpose individuals use them for and social outcomes examined. For instance, while adolescent Internet use for educational purposes was related to cohesive relationships with parents, their use of online communication was associated with cohesive friendship and school connectedness. Furthermore, it supports the rich get richer model, indicating that those who have strong social ties will have an increased ability to enhance their social capital by using the Internet and a computer as tools for social interaction than those who have weak social ties.