thoughts on Pew’s latest report: notable findings on race and privacy

Yesterday, Pew Internet and American Life Project (in collaboration with Berkman) unveiled a brilliant report about “Teens, Social Media, and Privacy.” As a researcher who’s been in the trenches on these topics for a long time now, none of their finding surprised me but it still gives me absolute delight when our data is so beautifully in synch. I want to quickly discuss two important issues that this report raise.

Race is a factor in explaining differences in teen social media use.

Pew provides important measures on shifts in social media, including the continued saturation of Facebook, the decline of MySpace, and the rise of other social media sites (e.g., Twitter, Instagram). When they drill down on race, they find notable differences in adoption. For example, they highlight data that is the source of “black Twitter” narratives: 39% of African-American teens use Twitter compared to 23% of white teens.

Most of the report is dedicated to the increase in teen sharing, but once again, we start to see some race differences. For example, 95% of white social media-using teens share their “real name” on at least one service while 77% of African-American teens do. And while 39% of African-American teens on social media say that they post fake information, only 21% of white teens say they do this.

Teens’ practices on social media also differ by race. For example, on Facebook, 48% of African-American teens befriend celebrities, athletes, or musicians while one 25% of white teen users do.

While media and policy discussions of teens tend to narrate them as an homogenous group, there are serious and significant differences in practices and attitudes among teens. Race is not the only factor, but it is a factor. And Pew’s data on the differences across race highlight this.

Of course, race isn’t actually what’s driving what we see as race differences. The world in which teens live is segregated and shaped by race. Teens are more likely to interact with people of the same race and their norms, practices, and values are shaped by the people around them. So what we’re actually seeing is a manifestation of network effects. And the differences in the Pew report point to black youth’s increased interest in being a part of public life, their heightened distrust of those who hold power over them, and their notable appreciation for pop culture. These differences are by no means new, but what we’re seeing is that social media is reflecting back at us cultural differences shaped by race that are pervasive across America.

Teens are sharing a lot of content, but they’re also quite savvy.

Pew’s report shows an increase in teens’ willingness to share all sorts of demographic, contact, and location data. This is precisely the data that makes privacy advocates anxious. At the same time, their data show that teens are well-aware of privacy settings and have changed the defaults even if they don’t choose to manage the accessibility of each content piece they share. They’re also deleting friends (74%), deleting previous posts (59%), blocking people (58%), deleting comments (53%), detagging themselves (45%), and providing fake info (26%).

My favorite finding of Pew’s is that 58% of teens cloak their messages either through inside jokes or other obscure references, with more older teens (62%) engaging in this practice than younger teens (46%). This is the practice that I’ve seen significantly rise since I first started doing work on teens’ engagement with social media. It’s the source of what Alice Marwick and I describe as “social steganography” in our paper on teen privacy practices.

While adults are often anxious about shared data that might be used by government agencies, advertisers, or evil older men, teens are much more attentive to those who hold immediate power over them – parents, teachers, college admissions officers, army recruiters, etc. To adults, services like Facebook that may seem “private” because you can use privacy tools, but they don’t feel that way to youth who feel like their privacy is invaded on a daily basis. (This, btw, is part of why teens feel like Twitter is more intimate than Facebook. And why you see data like Pew’s that show that teens on Facebook have, on average 300 friends while, on Twitter, they have 79 friends.) Most teens aren’t worried about strangers; they’re worried about getting in trouble.

Over the last few years, I’ve watched as teens have given up on controlling access to content. It’s too hard, too frustrating, and technology simply can’t fix the power issues. Instead, what they’ve been doing is focusing on controlling access to meaning. A comment might look like it means one thing, when in fact it means something quite different. By cloaking their accessible content, teens reclaim power over those who they know who are surveilling them. This practice is still only really emerging en masse, so I was delighted that Pew could put numbers to it. I should note that, as Instagram grows, I’m seeing more and more of this. A picture of a donut may not be about a donut. While adults worry about how teens’ demographic data might be used, teens are becoming much more savvy at finding ways to encode their content and achieve privacy in public.

Anyhow, I have much more to say about Pew’s awesome report, but I wanted to provide a few thoughts and invite y’all to read it. If there is data that you’re curious about or would love me to analyze more explicitly, leave a comment or drop me a note. I’m happy to dive in more deeply on their findings.

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12 thoughts on “thoughts on Pew’s latest report: notable findings on race and privacy

  1. Gianteye

    These are interesting ideas, but it’s important to note that to group of African-American teens interviewed was only 95 people in total. Although this is a large enough group to render statistically significant data, it’s not necessarily indicative of the population at large. It’s also important to remember these are teens who agreed to take part in a 76 question telephone poll with a stranger. Additionally, this data wasn’t collected with the intent of distinguishing the differences between surfing habits between any of the possible subgroups, so it’s subject to the kind of overextended interpretations that give us drug claims like “Taxacorr is 100% effected in single Asian women between the ages of 41 and 45.”

    Thank you for the analysis. I’m sincerely interested in the concept of social steganography and will be giving your paper a read through.

  2. Patricia Moore

    I just read this yesterday and found it very interesting on a couple of points.

    I would love to see the racial differences teased out by socio-economic status as well as whether they were rural, suburban or urban youth because I wonder if it’s race or class that’s playing the bigger role here. Will a black 16 year old from a middle class home in the suburbs more closely resemble the baits of other black youth or those of her or her white white neighbors?

    This report also seems to confirm something I’ve seen within the past six months or so, young people don’t seem to be as enthusiastic about FB as they were a year or two ago. Or at least that’s my perception. In the past few months I know at least three teen agers who hid their FB profiles and another who deleted it. I also don’t hear my nephew’s 10 and 11 year old pals talk about wanting to be on Facebook.

    While I don’t think this bodes any imminent doom for the social network behemoth, I can’t help but remember that looking at the history of social network sites you wrote with Nicole Ellison, SNSs seem to have a lifecycle. I think FBs was much longer than earlier SNSs for a couple of reasons but I also don’t think they can remain king of the mountain forever. Like MySpace I think that they are going to one day contract and reinvent themselves. Of course I don’t see this happening for about a decade but I think it will happen eventually.

  3. Mary Madden

    As one of the authors of the report, I wanted to second Gianteye’s point that it’s always important to be aware of a study’s sample size. You’re right that the group of African-American teens in our nationally-representative sample is relatively small (total n=122 African-American teens ages 12-17), but that aspect of the sample design is, in fact, one feature that makes it indicative of the population at large. To your point about studying surfing habits among different subgroups, we have been conducting research on Americans’ internet usage—and differences in technology use among different groups—for over thirteen years, all of which is freely available on our website. In addition, all of our questionnaires and data sets are freely available to researchers who wish to conduct their own analyses on the data:

    As with any research method, there are biases and design effects that need to be accounted for—which is why we feel it’s important to be as transparent as possible about disclosing our methods in every report. The methods section of the “Teens, Social Media and Privacy” report is available here.

    But part of what I think danah was trying to get at with her post is how some of these differences among African-Americans have been echoed in her own ethnographic research as well as across multiple studies of ours (among adults and teens, and in both the survey data and focus group findings). With respect to Twitter use, in the latest report we point to previous studies of teens that have indicated higher usage levels among African-American youth. In addition, we have also noted the same gap repeatedly in our adult data.

    From our perspective, far from using that data to make sweeping claims to try and sell something, we think these multiple indicators suggest interesting questions to explore further in future research.

  4. Lorenzo Chan

    This finding is *completely* consistent with what I experience from the young adults I work with each day. Sometimes slang is just slang, but this article rings true for me: often their language goes beyond slang and indeed cloaks meaning behind innocuous terms or random-sounding phrases. Just an annecdote to add to the sample…

  5. Margaret

    I wonder how much social stenography has been in play even before social media, but now is just becoming more apparent. I remember that in middle and high school, my friends and I gave others in our class who were not in our social group random nicknames so that we could talk about them privately, without worrying about eavesdroppers — whether they were parents, teachers, or peers.

  6. Alan Wolk

    I was surprised the study did not focus more on gender differences in teen social media use. There would seem to be much more of a gap there than between the races.
    Since the author of the Pew report is on this thread, I was hoping you might address that.

    My other observation is that seeing the spate of articles wherein the author takes their own teenage children’s social media use and declare it to be universal (and comparing that behavior with my own teens) the main conclusion I can draw (seeing as how they all contradict each other) is that teen behavior is fleeting and various tremendously from school to school, clique to clique and between boys and girls within those groups.

  7. Clara

    These are definitely fascinating trends.

    Like Patricia, I’m curious to see more in-depth research. Aside from socio-economic and geographical patterns, there’s also the issue of the many races and ethnicities that weren’t represented in the sample, including those who identify themselves as multiracial.

  8. Daniel

    I came here from Bruce Schneier’s blog and I have been thinking about what you call “social steganography” for a number of years only my focus has been on the art of propaganda. In other words, how social steganography is used to create in-group/out-group contrast effects and its role in social cohesion. To be clear, social steganography has an impact on those who use it that may be more important than its impact on those who it’s designed to thwart. It was Machiavelli who is noted for saying that “by misdirections we find directions out.” But what if the out-group itself is the misdirection?

  9. Mary Madden

    In response to Alan’s question about gender, there are many fascinating differences and they are noted throughout the summary of findings and in the main body of the report. Alan’s right that gender differences were not among the top-level findings noted on the very first page–in part because we have noted gender differences in social media usage extensively in previous reports. But just to clarify: racial differences did not make the first page, either. danah has smartly highlighted the ways in which some of the findings dovetail with her work on certain topics, but I invite folks to dig in to the full report to view all of that material in context.

  10. Alan Wolk

    Thanks for the link Mary. Your report jibes with my (completely unscientific and anecdotal) observations that girls are much heavier users of social media in general, non-Facebook social sites (Twitter and, especially, Instagram and Pinterest, in particular.) Which is completely unsurprising if you think about teen behavior overall, even in pre-social media days.

  11. Matt Norwood

    While adults worry about how teens’ demographic data might be used, teens are becoming much more savvy at finding ways to encode their content and achieve privacy in public.

    “What’s the frequency, Kenneth?” is your Benzedrine, uh-huh
    I was brain-dead, locked out, numb, not up to speed
    I thought I’d pegged you an idiot’s dream
    Tunnel vision from the outsider’s screen
    I never understood the frequency, uh-huh
    You wore our expectations like an armored suit, uh-huh

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