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Faculty Member Uses Blogs to Teach Adolescence Course

Liz Mazur photo
10/20/2005 —

The last generation used diaries as a method of expressing their private thoughts on romance and the social problems that impacted their lives. Diaries were often locked and regarded as "top secret" by the author.   In today's world, many adolescents use the internet as a public setting to express their supposedly private feelings and experiences.  After reading a few articles about this new method of teenage expression and checking out a few websites, Penn State Associate Professor, Elizabeth Mazur, decided to use the internet as a hand-on way for her undergraduates to study adolescent behavior. 

As part of her Adolescent Psychology (PSY 426) class, Dr. Mazur has introduced her students to the world of blogging.  Blogs, short for “web logs,” are online journals, personal commentaries posted by the author,  which usually are updated on a regular basis.  Newspapers estimate that 6,000,000 people posted their blogs on the internet in 2004.  Of these bloggers, 51%, or approximately 3,060,000, were  adolescents between the ages of  13 and 19.  

Dr. Mazur and her students analyze blogs as one type of source material for understanding and learning about the adolescent world.  As one of the class's activities, Dr. Mazur’s students examine blogs to gather primary data on adolescent relationships (friends, romantic interests, family conflicts, etc.) and the emotions which accompany those relationships.  Students are also asked to consider the importance of blogs as part of both current teen culture and their use of the Internet.  Finally, the students in Psychology 426 are asked to analyze the blogs as a specific type of media. 

Within one of Penn State McKeesport’s connected classrooms, PSY 426 students search for informative teen blogs and analyze why the adolescent is using the blog as a means of expression, their appeal for the writer and reader, and the drawbacks of this form of communication.  Students consider whether blogs will be a passing or a permanent phenomenon.    Most importantly, students examine the blogs’ content; for example,  what are the most common, surprising, and distressing topics that the teenagers write about?

Dr. Mazur's PSY 426 students have found that the most popular topics are romance, friends, sex, pop culture, parents, and school.  Students were surprised and somewhat distressed by the fact that many bloggers described in meticulous detail frequent romantic relationships and sexual activities.  Some PSY 426 students noted was that many bloggers include photos and personal information….a dangerous invitation, perhaps, for online harassment and offline stalking.  The "inconsistent" lives and thought process of some of the bloggers was noted by the Penn State students, in particular, "how everyday life can be so complicated for some people and happy for others."

When asked to evaluate this new teaching method, 92% of the PSY 426 students agreed that the activity increased their knowledge of adolescent use of the Internet.  Students also commented on their surprise at how willing teens were to express their innermost feelings, but added that the comments might have been posted online “because they don't expect adults to read them."  It was also noted by the class participants that they felt the activity gave them the opportunity to delve into the lives of adolescents and compare differences and similarities between the various teen commentaries.  

Dr. Mazur's findings on her PSY 426 learning activity were recently published in Teaching of Psychology.   In the article entitled "Online and Writing:  Teen Blogs as Mines of Adolescent Data,"  Dr. Mazur discusses the possibilities and limitations of blog analysis.  Blogs, according to Dr. Mazur, "constitute a new type of community that transcends geography, one with a relaxed sense of privacy and a large amount of both self-chronicling and often supportive responses."   Instructors, Mazur believes, could modify her analysis of teen blogs to study other topics such as adolescent egocentrism, the development of self understanding, gender stereotypes, and gender roles, as well as issues of adult development.   One limitation of using blogs as a resource, however, is that there are relatively few lower income families and African Americans in the mix.  Adolescents who are black or from families with annual incomes of $30,000 or less are less likely to have use of computer equipment and thus less likely to be blog journalists.    Dr. Mazur has been using the blog analysis learning activity since Summer, 2003. 

Overall, students in PSY 426 enjoyed their intimate look into the lives of teenagers.  Even though most of the college age students are close in age to the bloggers, the students were amused and sometimes surprised by the bloggers’ perspective on life..   Going back and looking at life through an adolescent's viewpoint was enlightening to members of the class and according to one student, "gave them a whole different perspective on adolescence."  


 

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