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Psychology - Child & School Psychology | Digital Youth - The Role of Media in Development (Reviews)

Digital Youth

The Role of Media in Development

Subrahmanyam, Kaveri, Smahel, David

2011, XV, 236 p. 28 illus.

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From the reviews:

“Digital Youth: The Role of Media in Development, by Kaveri Subrahmanyam and David Šmahel, demonstrates how youth use and integrate media into their lives. … the book’s main audience is more than researchers, undergraduates, and graduate students; it is designed to be accessible to parents, teachers and others who serve as caregivers for youth. As such, it serves as a useful and comprehensive introduction to an increasingly important area of adolescent life. … Digital Youth was easy to read and follow, even for a novice.” (Andrea Karle, Journal of Youth and Adolescence, Vol. 42, 2013)

“Need help understanding the evolving online media landscape of today’s youth? Kaveri Subrahmanyam and David Šmahel’s Digital Youth: The Role of Media in Development may be just the book to bring you up to speed. The authors provide an overview of research on a variety of issues related to the adolescent online media experience.

As acknowledged by the authors, this landscape changes so rapidly that research is almost outdated as soon as it is conducted. This is an ongoing challenge for those who conduct research on any aspect of popular culture, and for the most part the authors do a fine job of providing the most up-to-date data available at the time of writing. In addition, the book provides a refreshing focus on the positive aspects of the youth online media experience, as well as noting the many potential hazards.

The book is infused with a strong developmental perspective that helps unite such disparate topics as cybersex, civic engagement, and game violence, among many others. The focus on three key developmental tasks of adolescence—sexuality, identity, and establishing intimate relationships—provides an effective organizing framework. The authors further set the stage with their assertion that, as well as being influenced by their digital world, young people affect the construction and impact of these experiences. In other words, the interactive nature of digital environments requires that users be a key part of a dynamic process of use, adaptation, and change.

However, their criticism of media effects theory as one-sided seems to ignore a key development. Anderson and colleagues’ general learning model strongly emphasizes interactions among situational and person variables (Anderson & Bushman, 2001; Carnagey & Anderson, 2005). This model has strong and ever-increasing empirical support.

Have you heard the term digital natives? How about digital immigrants? These terms were coined by game designer Marc Prensky (Prensky, 2001). The expressions capture the profound difference between the digital media experience of adults and that of young people. Youths are digital natives who have never known a world without the myriad forms of technology that connect them to each other and to a communication- and information-heavy world. Most are naturally comfortable with the currently available media and easily adapt to the next iteration. Their parents (and most seasoned media researchers) are digital immigrants who must choose to become acculturated to ever-evolving digital technologies. These differences lead to some apprehension on the part of the digital immigrants and perhaps to a focus on negative outcomes.

Take, for example, the widespread belief that time spent on the Internet is socially isolating. The authors cite research that suggests that online time for youths is actually a contemporary medium for enhancing communication and socialization. Digital immigrants may find this difficult to accept.

What are the ways in which communication and socialization may be enhanced in the digital world? Subrahmanyam and Šmahel point out several opportunities, including enhanced access to a diverse peer group and thus to one of the primary arenas for the development of social skills.

Identity development, too, can be facilitated through online communication as youths are free to determine how much to reveal about their offline identity and perhaps to feature different aspects of the self than what they display offline. For an adolescent who is struggling to define him- or herself, there must be a certain comfort in the baseline anonymity of the Internet. However, there is still much to learn about whether, for most youths, the anonymity of the Internet is primarily liberating or fraught with danger.

The potential for addiction to activities on the Internet is one possible and poorly researched danger zone. The authors rightly note that this is a complex issue: Is compulsive Internet use just a symptom displayed by a generally addiction-prone individual and not a true addiction to the Internet itself? There is much to learn about the factors that increase or mitigate the relative risk of developing addictive behavior in the online digital world, as well as factors that determine whether, overall, the physical and psychological impact of engagement in this world is positive or negative. Given its potential for facilitating the completion of various developmental tasks, as well as providing opportunities for community and political awareness and engagement, the authors seem positive about the eventual outcome of online media experiences for most young people.

There are a few less commendable points to mention. Occasionally some descriptions of research findings seem contradictory and a bit confusing. (See, for example, the citation in Chapter 10 regarding Funk et al.’s research on violence exposure and empathy and attitudes toward violence. The opening sentences state that no relationships were found, but subsequent sentences note specific significant relationships.)

When research on youths is not available, the authors frequently cite findings from research on adults. Given the strong developmental framework of the book, one might expect more caveats about the applicability of adult-based research to people in a very different developmental stage. And, finally, the reader must decide for him- or herself whether the occasional comments about personal experiences with friends and family add to the book or detract from its scientific credibility.

In conclusion, the reader looking for a broad discussion of the issues related to the online digital ecosystem encountered by today’s young people will find that Digital Youth: The Role of Media in Development provides some important food for thought. The authors have achieved their stated goal to “come to a better understanding of the developmental implications of adolescents’ digital lives” (p. 22).

In particular, the book draws attention to areas where developmental task completion may be enhanced by youths’ interactions online, which should be reassuring to those of us who are digital immigrants. Subrahmanyam and Šmahel’s book will be of interest to a range of professionals concerned with the welfare of children and adolescents, including social, developmental, school, media, and clinical psychologists, as well as developmental pediatricians and communications researchers.


Anderson, C. A., & Bushman, B. J. (2001). Effects of violent video games on aggressive behavior, aggressive cognition, aggressive affect, physiological arousal, and prosocial behavior: A meta-analytic review of the scientific literature. Psychological Science, 12, 353–359. doi:10.1111/1467-9280.00366

Carnagey, N. L., & Anderson, C. A. (2005). The effects of reward and punishment in violent video games on aggressive affect, cognition, and behavior. Psychological Science, 16, 882–889. doi:10.1111/j.1467-9280.2005.01632.x

Prensky, M. (2001). Digital natives, digital immigrants. Horizon, 9(5), 1–6. doi:10.1108/10748120110424816”

PsycCRITIQUES, March 30, 2011, Vol. 56, Release 13, Article 3
Reviewed by Jeanne Brockmyer


"With a strong research based and careful attention to major theories of adolescent development, this is the definitive work on how Internet activities affect adolescence. Subrahmanyam and Smahel correct many myths about Internet effects on teens and give sage advice on how to promote healthy use of the Internet. A “must read” for all who are concerned about raising healthy teens in a digital age."
- Professor Brad Brown
Human Development Area
Department of Educational Psychology
University of Wisconsin-Madison


"Digital Youth by Subrahmanyam and Smahel is a truly scholarly work that beautifully integrates developmental issues of adolescence with the ways in which young people use the Internet. The collaboration between Subrahmanyam in the United States and Smahel in Czech Republic has yielded a book that draws on data from many countries and has an unusually international perspective. The book also has an unusually balanced perspective, carefully presenting empirical research findings on both opportunities and dangers offered by new media technologies.  This is a landmark work on adolescence and the Internet."
- Patricia M. Greenfield
Distinguished Professor of Psychology, UCLA


“This volume is one of the most significant efforts to date to provide much needed, empirically-based insight into how today’s young people interact with the vast array of digital media that increasingly defines both their lives and the larger world.  The evidence gathered here is both comprehensive and consistently fine-grained and detailed – including very helpful cross-cultural comparisons that show how far important cultural differences interact with media use around the globe.  The result is a picture of young people as rather far from the presumptions and stereotypes of “cultural dopes” - ostensibly passive, helpless youngsters who are inevitably reshaped by an inexorable technological determinism. By contrast, the research and commentary offered here helps highlight how far young people, in at least many instances, are rather savvy users who – more often than we might expect from popular media - know how to use new media technologies in ways largely appropriate to their tasks and interests as youngsters moving to maturity and responsibility.

Thereby, the volume is especially useful for countering more popular assumptions and fears, including those fueled by “moral panics” in popular media: by the same token, the book helpfully documents how contemporary usage of media contradicts claims and views among CMC scholars prevalent in the 1990s. Finally, the authors are careful to make clear what we know – and what we still don’t know - about youth online, e.g., whether or not the more casual and permissive attitudes towards sexuality of those young people who peruse pornography are an effect of such consumption, and/or reflect attitudes or potentials already at work prior to consuming such material. 

The volume is thus essential reading for scholars and researchers in a variety of fields, including psychology, media studies, and communication studies.  At the same time, especially parents will find one of the volume’s greatest values lies in its using these solid empirical findings to ground an exceptionally well-thought out and highly practical set of suggestions and guidelines for how parents can engage with their children in ways that will foster more positive rather than more negative outcomes from their use of new technologies. Perhaps the most important take-away message from this book, then, is: the kids are alright! – or will be, if parents and the rest of us take the time to learn from this volume.

In these many ways, the book will prove to be an invaluable resource for further research and teaching, and is certain to emerge as a watershed publication that will serve as a textus classicus for scholars and those more generally interested in media, youth, and culture in the broadest sense.”
- Charles Ess
Distinguished Research Professor, Interdisciplinary Studies
Drury University, Springfield, Missouri 65802 USA

“Subrahmanyam and Smahel examine the ways in which adolescents approach the digital media and how digital media may be shaping adolescents’ development. … those interested in learning more about the topic of media and adolescent development will find the book a reasonable introduction to the world of research on media and human development … . Summing Up: Recommended. Lower- and upper-division undergraduates, general readers.” (P. Flattau, Choice, Vol. 48 (10), June, 2011)



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