My name is danah boyd and I'm a Principal Researcher at Microsoft Research, a Research Assistant Professor in Media, Culture, and Communication at New York University, and a Fellow at Harvard's Berkman Center for Internet and Society. Buzzwords in my world include: privacy, context, youth culture, social media, big data. I use this blog to express random thoughts about whatever I'm thinking.

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PEW data on social network site use

PEW has just released the overview of their latest study on teens’ usage of social network sites. Most of the data is not surprising, but it sure is interesting. Here are some of the key findings:

  • 55% of online teens (ages 12-17) have created a personal profile online, and 55% have used social networking sites like MySpace or Facebook.

  • 66% of teens who have created a profile say that their profile is not visible to all internet users. They limit access to their profiles.
  • 48% of teens visit social networking websites daily or more often; 26% visit once a day, 22% visit several times a day.
  • Older girls ages 15-17 are more likely to have used social networking sites and created online profiles; 70% of older girls have used an online social network compared with 54% of older boys, and 70% of older girls have created an online profile, while only 57% of older boys have done so.

I wanted to comment on their findings because, frankly, i’m terrified of how this is going to be taken up by the press.

Only 55%?: Participants and Non-Participants

Given last year’s hype, it may seem low that only 55% of teens have created a profile. It probably is, but not by a lot. That said, it’s important to know something about PEW’s methods. PEW calls families; they first speak with the parent and then talk to the teen. It is likely that the parents are nearby when their child is answering PEW’s questions. Parents influence teens answers (as i’ve seen continuously) and in the case of MySpace, teens are more likely to say ‘no’ when the truth is yes than to say ‘yes’ when the truth is no. I’ve also been regularly surprised at how many teens tell me that they don’t use these sites and then, when i poke at them, i find out that they do indeed have profiles (often created by friends) and that they login semi-regularly. Still, i suspect that PEW’s numbers are low by 10% at most.

Qualitatively, I have found that there are two types of non-participants: disenfranchised teens and conscientious objectors. The former consists of those without Internet access, those whose parents succeed in banning them from participation, and online teens who primarily access the Internet through school and other public venues where social network sites are banned. Conscientious objectors include politically minded teens who wish to protest against Murdoch�s News Corp. (the corporate owner of MySpace), obedient teens who have respected or agree with their parents’ moral or safety concerns, marginalized teens who feel that social network sites are for the cool kids, and other teens who feel as though they are too cool for these sites. The latter two explanations can be boiled down to one explanation that I heard frequently: “because it’s stupid.” While the various conscientious objectors may deny participating, I have found that many of them actually do have profiles to which they log in occasionally. I have also found numerous cases where the friends of non-participants create profiles for them. Furthermore, amongst those conscientious objectors who are genuinely non-participants, I have yet to find one who does not have something to say about the sites, albeit typically something negative. In essence, MySpace is the civil society of teenage culture: whether one is for it or against it, everyone knows the site and has an opinion about it.

Gender differences

I am interested in the fact that in the 12-14 group, there’s little difference in usage across the sexes (46% of boys vs. 44% of girls). Things change in the 15-17 group with 57% of boys and 70% of girls participating. That’s significant. What happens? Most likely, this has to do with the fact that these sites are used to maintain current (and past) friends and girls are more engaged in this than boys. But either way, there’s a shift in participation that appears to hapen along gender lines as teens get older.

Not surprisingly, boys are more than twice as likely to use these sites to flirt than girls (29% vs. 13%). Boys are also more likely to use these sites to make new friends than girls (60% vs. 46%). I have to say that this makes me really sad. This is probably not about boys being more interested in meeting people than girls, but about girls being the subject of most of our fear around strangers. I remember watching 1950s movies about fathers not letting their daughters out while their sons could do whatever. I suspect that we have similar gendered limitations on our children’s internet usage. We allow our sons to talk with whoever, but tell our daughters that everyone they meet online is bound to be a perfecrt. Perhaps it’s rational, perhaps girls are more at risk, but perhaps it is our fear of them that puts them more at risk.

Privacy and Public Expressions

I’m surprised that so many (66%) of teens have limit the visibility of their profile (translation: friends-only). I would not have expected it to be that high, but i think that’s great. I know folks are going to say “that’s low” because they think everyone should be hyperprivate, but that’s not my view. I think that there’s a reason to be out in public if you’re careful about how you do it. I’m public, i’ve been public since i was a teenager and i don’t regret it one bit.

There’s a not-so-highlighted number in this report that i find very interesting though. 84% of teens have posted messages to a friend’s profile or page. This practice, while not particularly surprising to people, may signal something very interesting. Teens are primarily writing “private” (realistically directed is a better word) messages to each other through this feature. In other words, “you, wazzup, we gonna go out tonite?” The response will also take place in the comments section and a conversation will happen back and forth across profiles. These are semi-private conversations written in public to be witnessed by all friends.

On one hand, you could say that this is ridiculous – why not keep private bits private? On the other hand, i think it’s an interesting strategy in an environment where there’s so much “she said / he said.” By speaking in the witness of others, it’s a lot harder to spread hearsay (or fabricated IM messages).

Social Networks vs. Social Networking

I would like to highlight the fact that 91% of teens are using social network sites to stay in touch with friends they see in person while only 49% are using them to meet people (ever). I hope that this makes people realize that, for teenagers, these sites are *not* about networking. They are about modeling one’s social network.

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13 comments to PEW data on social network site use

  • aceofspades

    just wondering what you meant by this:

    “Not surprisingly, boys are more than twice as likely to use these sites to flirt than boys (29% vs. 13%). Boys are also more likely to use these sites to make new friends than boys (60% vs. 46%).”

  • all 4 of my kids have myspaces. three of them are private and i’m lucky enough to be on their friends list, so i get to see the chatter that goes on. they spend all their time talking to all the friends that they saw all day at school. it’s a continuation and extension of their friend structure at school. myspace usage actually lessons during the summer when they see their friends less, instead of going up like i first assumed it would.

  • �Not surprisingly, boys are more than twice as likely to use these sites to flirt than girls (29% vs. 13%).�

    I concur with the previous comment– why �not surprisingly�. As far as I can tell, flirting has not been clearly operationalised in the pew report and to accurately measure flirting you need to break it down into different components. For instance, men might say the opening line more than women; however, women might use more subtle flirtatious speech eg., emoticons. (see the following journal articles and book for more details):

    Whitty, M. T. & Carr, A. N. (2006). Cyberspace romance: The psychology of online relationships. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.

    Whitty, M. T. (2003). Cyber-flirting: Playing at love on the Internet. Theory and Psychology, 13 (3),339-357.

    Whitty, M. T. & Carr, A. N. (2003). Cyberspace as potential space: Considering the web as a playground to cyber-flirt. Human Relations, 56 (7), 861-891.

    Whitty, M. T. (2004). Cyber-flirting: An examination of men’s and women’s flirting behaviour both offline and on the Internet. Behaviour Change, 21 (2), 115-126.

  • Not surprisingly because we’re dealing with teenage girls who have been told over and over and over again that they should be terrified of any guy that they meet online. Monica – my understanding is that your work deals with adults. Am i mistaken?

  • Hello again. My research actually considers across all the age groups. In fact I would agree with many other psychologists who have argued that when you consider all of the cues involved in flirting it is often women who makes the opening move (e.g., Monica Moore’s wonderful study). You have to understand that firting is not simply telling someone they are attractive and that it does not always happen on a conscious level. So when you simply ask people do you flirt online you may not be getting a true measure.

    Currently, my PhD student is examining Myspace and is not finding so far that men flirt more than women. But then she is not simply asking: Do you flirt online.

    Also, many teenagers are communicating online with people they know offline.

  • Monica – no doubt you’re measuring something very different than what PEW is measuring. This is self-reported data based on what people perceive themselves to be doing rather than behaviors that we recognize as flirting as witnesses. My guess is also that what PEW was getting at wrt flirting concerns the stranger, not the peers that teens already know. In other words, explicitly and consciously going to the site to flirt. There is no doubt that MySpace (and IM, mobile phone, etc.) are used by peers to flirt with one another, continuing an interest that is rooted in physical interactions. And i would concur with your views that much flirtation is unconcious and subtle. That said, i think PEW’s main point is: look, teens are not seeing these sites as online dating sites (even if adults do). When it comes to the nuances of actual flirtation, i don’t think that PEW’s findings are applicable.

  • Let me second what danah said. Our study isn’t trying to do a deep study of the all of the verbal and non-verbal nuances of flirting. We wanted to know whether or not young people believed that that is what they themselves were doing on the site, as a way of getting at perceptions of the sites’ utility and function in their lives. Is it really about meeting new people? Romantic hook ups? or as danah so eloquently put it “modeling your friend network?”

    Pew Internet’s research has always been about understanding the user’s perspective on their behavior, rather than trying to get at a “true” (and I might ask whether we all might have trouble coming to a satisfactory definition of what true is) read on a particular behavior or action.

    So Monica is right, we aren’t measuring unconscious online flirting, only conscious flirting activity; but our final research goals are also quite different.

  • Thanks for that. I’m one of those guys that was worried about having a new generation of people which disregarded their privacy. The 66% of teens not having their profile public tells me how wrong I was. Privacy is not about keeping you data private. It’s about being able to choose how your personal data is handled. That figure shows that these teens have options to manage thei privacy and, more than that, that they are doing it. Thanks for setting some of my fears to rest.

  • Dave

    The use of public comments for ‘private conversations’ is an interesting stat. I think it’s more akin to ‘tagging’ a user’s profile with a personal comment than it is about communicating with the user. Posting a message to make plans indicates a connection. Facebook’s wall makes the tagging metaphor explicit.

  • Steve

    How many of these private profiles are in response to the emerging trend of adult use of myspace, and in particular the trend of parents using it to monitor their kids? This would seem to be a powerful incentive, at least for kids who feel uncomfortable witht their parents knowing such things, which is many of them.

    It used to be safe to assume that only your peers would see your profile, because MySpace was essentially a teen phenomenon to which parents were oblivious. That day has passed.

    It sure would be interesting to do research on how many kids allow their parents onto their freinds list, and the issues surrounding that choice.

    -Steve

  • Steve

    At the risk of being controversial, I’m going to suggest that it’s reasonable from a parent’s viewpoint to be more protective of girls than boys in their online behavior. I’m going to assume numbers not in evidence, and give my personal perception of various differences in gender-based reality, but I’d certainly be receptive if anybody has numbers or strong anecdotal evidence that would contradict those perceptions.

    (1) Online predation is more likely to be directed toward young women than young men. We are still predominantly a hetrosexual and male-agressive society. This suggests that the overwhelmingly dominant mode of predation will be M seeking F. Certainly all the other permutations happen, but I would suggest that they happen less, and that girls are at greater risk of being approached.

    (2) If a physical meeting occurs with a potential predator, males will in general have better resources available to defend themselves physically than will females. There is still a strong cultural norm that suggests that a male should be competent to fight and capable of self-defense. For females this is at best an emerging norm. There are still a lot of “helpless women” out there (of all ages) who don’t consider that it is their responsiblity to become physically competent to fight off an attacker. Plus, the diffetences in strength between men and women remain a biological reality. Admittedly this can be neutralized, but only at the additional cost of specialized self-defense training and/or weaponry.

    I certainly understand and sympathize with the ideal that a person should be respected for the contents of their mind and soul, irrespective of their gender. However, gender differences and their behavioral and social consequences remain real for all that.

    -Steve

  • Regarding use of public comments for private or directed conversations;

    A friend of mine who teaches “media literacy” (if that is the correct english term) pointed out that one reason for that could be an ingrained need of children and teens to be interesting. In a way asking everyone to “please be interested in what I do”.

    Small children do this by repeating “mommy! look!” a thousand times or as long as it takes for mom to turn her head. Teens seek attention in other ways, be it showing photos of themselves or revealing mundane things we consider private. Adults put up blogs and strive to be remarkable. ;)

  • Jessica Margolin

    (1) Hypothesis: boys socialize with existing friends via xbox (and around game interactions), not myspace. Further, they may be more likely than girls to be out of the house rather than in it.

    (2) Overly worried about girls: My opinion (based on observations as a parent of a teen boy and conversations with my friends who parent girls and boys) is that girls often mature so much earlier than boys, it’s really that parents are afraid that their 15 year old daughter really *is* grown up in some fundamental way and so will be much more tempted to “leave childhood” if they meet a stranger than their son.

    But I do agree with your comment that the burden of anxiety is propagated via girls, also.

    (3) Privacy: Since kindergarten (1997), every year my son has had to not only listen in class but personally sign a paper for school that describes the horrible dangers of being online and that he agrees to never give certain types of information out. Assuming this experience is typical, all memory of using the internet has been with the understanding that it’s public. He never had to “realize” that his conversations could be seen by others, it was deeply embedded in the whole experience of being online.

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