Young adults face many options when they go online—they might learn a new skill or lurk on a Discord channel; make a new friend or mock an existing one; create content or consume it. My research focuses on why young women choose to pursue positive opportunities new technology offers instead of risky or harmful activities. To answer this question, I analyzed the results from two large scale surveys of British teenagers, ran a quasi-experiment with 100 American teenagers attending a computer science conference, and ran an online experiment with parents of American teenagers.
To study the why, psychologists turn towards motivation, or why we do what we do. Motivation may be characterized as intrinsic—performing for personal rewards—or extrinsic—performing for external rewards (or punishments). According to Self-Determination Theory (SDT), when intrinsically motivated to do an activity—say, play an engaging educational game—we are more likely to persist in the activity. When extrinsically motivated, we are more likely to underperform and quickly lose interest. This framework has been applied towards the study of educational outcomes, professional outcomes, and even athletic performance. For my dissertation, I applied SDT towards young women’s technology use to determine the factors that predict intrinsic motivation for using and studying technology, and the outcomes when teenagers are intrinsically motivated to use tech.
SDT researchers posit that intrinsic motivation develops when an individual’s basic needs for autonomy, competency, and relatedness are satisfied. They argue that when individuals feel in control of their behavior and choices (autonomous), effective at acting on these choices (competent), and connected to others (related), they thrive. However, despite rich literature on the roles of autonomy and competency in supporting intrinsic motivation, much less is understood about the importance of relatedness.
In response, I focused specifically on relatedness and its role in fostering parent-child relationships around technology, motivating constructive technology use, and furthering young women’s technical study. My dissertation contained several studies that applied SDT to determine why young people pursue positive opportunities online and the role of relatedness in leading towards this pursuit. By working with a psychologist and a political scientist, I explored the reasons behind individuals’ technology use and applied the findings towards developing tangible solutions.
Here are four key take-aways from my research:
Relationships support intrinsic motivation
When young women feel they have a source of offline social support, they are more likely to develop intrinsic motivation to pursue online opportunities, such as learning new skills, creating content, and socializing. In line with prior studies, I found that when parents restricted digital access, their teenagers were less likely to access these digital opportunities. Yet, when parents were actively involved in their daughters’ digital lives and also fostered an offline relationship with their child, their daughter was more likely to develop intrinsic motivation.
Intrinsic motivation predicts the take-up of online opportunities
When young women are intrinsically motivated to use technology, they are more likely to pursue creative, educational, or social online opportunities. This points to the importance of nurturing a child’s autonomous relationship with technology and creating an understanding that technology can play an important role in their lives.
We can’t be what we can’t see
In addition to studying young women’s take-up of technical opportunities, I also explored their take-up of technical study. Young women are less likely to study and pursue computer science education, despite being as capable as their male peers. Therefore, if we want young women to persist in technical environments, it is crucial to identify factors that lead to their intrinsic motivation.
However, while SDT posits that competency, autonomy, and relatedness are equally important for intrinsic motivation, research that I conducted at the Bit by Bit conference identified that relatedness is uniquely significant. If women do not feel related to others in technical environments, they will be unable to develop intrinsic motivation and thus will underperform and leave the pipeline.
When we trust our kids, they do better
When parents feel related to their teenage child, they are more likely to actively mediate their child’s internet use, which leads to a child’s take-up of online opportunities. However, my research showed that when mothers felt that technology drove them apart from their daughters, they were more likely to restrict internet use, therefore limiting the opportunities their daughter might have access to. They did not show the same behavior for their sons.
While these results map to stand-alone studies within my dissertation, when taken together, these findings demonstrate the role that offline relationships play in fostering positive online opportunities, the common psychological factors that predict a young women’s access to and participation in tech-related activities, and the importance of relatedness in young women’s lives.
While it may be natural for parents to worry about the role of technology in children’s lives, parents who engage in shared activities together online, or ask their children to teach them something new, are likely to foster a close-knit relationship that supports healthy development both offline and in the realm of digital and technology-related activities.
 Deci, E. L., & Ryan, R. M. (2000). The “What” and “Why” of Goal Pursuits: Human Needs and the Self-Determination of Behavior. Psychological Inquiry, 11(4), 227–268.
Allison is a consultant who focuses on technology and child development. She holds both a PhD from the University of Oxford’s Internet Institute and an MBA from the Yale School of Management. She has worked with organizations including UNICEF, LEGO, and Brown University. Prior to her studies, she helped launch the Games Division at News Corp’s Amplify Education and supported STEM outreach initiatives at the Joan Ganz Cooney Center. Most recently, she created Bit by Bit, a conference and initiative that introduces young women to computer science. She received the Thouron Fellowship from the University of Pennsylvania where she graduated Phi Beta Kappa with an individualized BA in Computer Science and Society.