Over the course of seven years, our research examining teenagers’ use of the internet has repeatedly shown that teens are one of the most wired segments of the American population. And teenagers, perhaps more than any other age group in the U.S., have been well-positioned to take advantage of new communications technologies and social media applications as they emerge.
Psychologists have long noted that the teenage years are host to a tumultuous period of identity formation and role development. Adolescents are intensely focused on social life during this time, and consequently have been eager and early adopters of internet applications that help them engage with their peers. In our first national survey of teenagers’ internet use in 2000, we found that teens had embraced instant messaging and other online tools to play with and manage their online identities. In our second major study of teens in 2004, we noted that teenagers had taken to blogging and a wide array of content creation activities at a much higher rate than adults. Teens who adopted these tools were no longer only communicating with text, but they were also developing a fluency in expressing themselves through multiple types of digital media – including photos, music and video.
And along comes MySpace….
MySpace was by no means the first social networking application to come to the fore, but it has been the fastest-growing, and now consistently draws more traffic than almost any other website on the internet. It has also garnered the majority of public attention paid to online social networking, and sparked widespread concern among parents and lawmakers about the safety of teens who post information about themselves on the site.
Social networking sites appeal to teens, in part, because they encompass so many of the online tools and entertainment activities that teens know and love. They provide a centralized control center to access real-time and asynchronous communication features, blogging tools, photo, music and video sharing features, and the ability to post original creative work – all linked to a unique profile that can be customized and updated on a regular basis. However, in order to reap the benefits of socializing and making new friends, teens often disclose information about themselves that would normally be part of a gradual “getting-to-know-you” process offline (name, school, personal interests, etc.). On social network sites, this kind of information is now posted online -- sometimes in full public view. In some cases, this information is innocuous or fake. But in other cases, disclosure reaches a level that is troubling for parents and those concerned about the safety of online teens.
Social networking sites are by no means the first online application to spark worries among parents. In our first study of teen internet usage in 2000, well before social networking sites emerged, we reported that 57% of parents were worried that strangers would contact their children online. At that time, close to 60% of teens had received an instant message or email from a stranger and 50% of teens who were using online communication tools said they had exchanged emails or instant messages with someone they had never met in person. At the time, parents responded to these worries by taking precautions such as monitoring their child’s internet use and placing the computer in a public area of the home -- much as they do today.
Studies of child victimization have shown that incidences of sexual abuse, physical abuse and other forms of maltreatment have been declining since the early 1990’s. Research has also shown that acquaintances and family members are responsible for most of the physical crimes committed against children. However, the type of “friending” activity that occurs on social networking sites, where users link to one another’s profiles to grow their networks, highlights the radically changing notion of what it means to be acquainted with someone. It is so compelling to some teens to display big friendship networks and so easy with a click or two to establish online connections that it is possible for teens to have virtual ties to others on social networks whom they have never met in person. That raises key questions and concerns: Are these people they have some connection to—through online or offline friends who can vouch for them? What kind of information are they posting to their profiles, and who has access to that information?
When asked these questions, teens consistently say that the decisions they make about disclosing personal information on social networks and in offline situations depend heavily on the context of that exchange. Posting a generic school name to a profile like “Jefferson High” does not reveal the same level of specificity as posting “Our Lady of Perpetual Help School.” Likewise, those who live in smaller towns who disclose the name of the city where they live would share more detail than those who say they live in a large metropolitan area. Many of the teens we interviewed were aware of these distinctions and most are taking steps to restrict public access to their profiles.
This study was conducted in two parts; first we conducted a series of six focus groups with middle and high school students in two American cities in June of 2006. Groups were single gender, and grouped in three grade ranges – 7th and 8th, 9th and 10th, and 11th and 12th grades. After completing the six in-person focus groups, a 7th online, mixed gender high school-age focus group was also conducted. These qualitative results are not representative of the U.S. teen population.
Second we fielded a nationally-representative call back telephone survey of 935 parent–teen pairs. We interviewed teens who were between the ages of 12 and 17. This survey was fielded between October 23, 2006 and November 19, 2006 and has an overall margin of error of plus or minus three percentage points.