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.
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.