03 teen girl phone dog webPets are recognized as an important part of family systems, yet research on adolescents’ relationships with their pets is limited. WCW Senior Research Scientist Linda Charmaraman, Ph.D., recently co-authored an article delving into these relationships, and specifically how they are associated with adolescents’ use of social media.

“Both pets and social media can be sources of social and emotional support for adolescents, especially right now when many are quarantined at home,” said Charmaraman. “But there hasn’t been much research in this area, so we wanted to take a closer look at how interactions with pets are associated with online social behavior.”

The article, co-authored by Megan K. Mueller, Ph.D., assistant professor at the Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine at Tufts University, and Amanda M. Richer, M.A., research associate and assistant methodologist at WCW, was published in September in a special issue of the Child and Adolescent Social Work Journal focused on human-animal interactions. 

Funded by Children and Screens: Institute of Digital Media and Child Development, it is the first study to explore links between owning pets, online social competence, and social technology use, particularly focused on how pets can act as either a substitute or a complement to social interactions online. 

The research team surveyed 700 middle school students recruited from three schools in the Greater Boston area, and about half of the respondents took a longer survey with more detailed questions about pet relationship quality. The results were interesting and sometimes surprising: For example, the type of pet mattered. Adolescents who had dogs were more likely to check social media more frequently, to give and receive online social support, and to feel less social isolation. 

“Adolescent dog owners preferred not to spend their free time alone,” said Charmaraman. “They were also more likely to report that online social support such as social media allows them to express themselves and relate to others.”

The research team found that the more time spent with a pet — no matter what kind of pet it was — the more likely the adolescent played online games for leisure and browsed the internet about animals. And the more attached the adolescent was to their pet, the more likely they provided and received online social support.  

“We found that the more attached an adolescent is to their pet, the more likely it is that they will have a greater sense of community and connectedness to others online,” said Charmaraman. “They are willing to take higher social risks online — meaning they reach out to others who seek support, and they lean on their online communities when they need support. This demonstrates compassion and a desire to be emotionally connected to other people.”

The researchers think that perhaps youth who have strong social skills are more likely to have these skills reinforced through pet relationships and to further extend their social networks online. But more investigation is needed to understand the effects of pet ownership on adolescents. 

Charmaraman and Mueller are embarking on a new project, funded by the National Institutes of Health, that will look at whether the quality of youths’ relationships with their pets predicts healthy adolescent behaviors, and how parents influence the ways in which pets are integrated into the family system. The results, expected in 2022, will provide a better understanding of the benefits of pet ownership for adolescents, and what role family dynamics play in relationships between adolescents and their pets.

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