November 9, 2011

Teens, kindness and cruelty on social network sites

Part 2: Social Media and Digital Citizenship: What teens experience and how they behave on social network sites

Section 1: The majority of teens have positive online experiences, but some are caught in an online feedback loop of meanness and negative experiences.

This section of the report examines teens’ perceptions and social experiences online. We take readings on the overall emotional climate of social media spaces and then delve into their specific experiences, both positive and negative. In our survey, we follow teens’ experiences of online cruelty – either personally felt or observed – from incident to resolution, by asking them about how they reacted to the experience and how they saw others react. We ask them about whether they sought advice and where – both general advice about online safety and responsibility, and specific advice on how to handle an experience of online cruelty on a social network site. Additionally, we ask whether the advice they got was good.

We also plumb the actions and interventions of parents – both through their eyes and also through the eyes of teens. Finally, we explore where parents figure in the constellation of influences in their child’s digital life.

The majority of social media-using teens say their experience is that their peers are mostly kind to one another on social network sites, but their views are less positive when compared with similar assessments from online adults.

We asked teens the following question about what they see in social network spaces: “Overall, in your experience, are people your age mostly kind or mostly unkind to one another on social network sites?” Most of the 77% of all teens who use social media say their experience is that people their age are mostly kind to one another on social network sites. Overall, 69% of social media-using teens say their experience is that peers are mostly kind to each other in social network spaces. Another 20% say their peers are mostly unkind, while 11% volunteered that “it depends.” However, in a similar question asked of adults 18 and older, 85% of social media-using adults reported that their experience was that people are mostly kind to one another on social network sites, while just 5% reported that they see people behaving in mostly unkind ways.19

 Mostly kind or unkind

Girls ages 12-13 have the most negative assessment of social network spaces.

While teens across all demographic groups generally have positive experiences watching how their peers treat each other on social network sites, younger teenage girls (ages 12-13) stand out as considerably more likely to say their experience is that people are mostly unkind. One in three (33%) younger teen girls who uses social media says that people her age are mostly unkind to one another on social network sites, compared with 9% of social media-using boys 12-13 and 18% of boys 14-17. One in five older girls (20%) who uses social media says that in her experience people her age are mostly unkind to one another on these sites.

Black teens are less likely to say their experience is that people their age are kind to one another on social network sites.

Black social media users are less likely than white and Latino users to report that people their age are mostly kind online. While 72% of whites and 78% of Latino youth say that their experience is that people are usually kind on social network sites, just over half (56%) of blacks say the same.

How peers treat one another on social media

Teens tend towards negative words when describing how people act online.

As a part of this project, we conducted seven focus groups with teens ages 12 to 19 to ask teens more in-depth questions about their experiences interacting with others on social network sites. In the groups, we asked the teen participants questions about how people usually acted online. In some cases, we asked students to tell us about their observations of online behavior and then tell us how they thought people should act in online spaces. In one exercise, we asked the participants to write down words or phrases that they felt captured these concepts. As the word clouds20 created from the words they shared suggest, teens overwhelmingly chose negative adjectives to describe how people act online. Words that appeared frequently included “rude,” “mean,” “fake,” “crude,” “over-dramatic,” and “disrespectful.” Some teens did use positive words like the frequently mentioned “funny” and the less common “honest,” “clever,” “friendly,” “entertaining,” and “sweet,” but overall the frequency of positive words was substantially lower. Other terms shared by participants could be interpreted differently depending on the context of use – these include the popular term “different” and others like “emotional,” “cautious,” “outspoken,” “strange,” and “open.”
Word cloud
Of the teens who were asked about how they thought people should act online, the responses were substantially more positive and included words like “respectful,” “nice,” “friendly,” “mature,” “peaceful,” and phrases like “mind your own business” and “don’t put it all out there.”

Word cloud

After the exercise, we asked the focus group participants follow-up questions to plumb the discrepancies between the way they had witnessed people acting on social media and how they thought people should act on the sites.

Many teens told us that they just felt like different people on these sites and thought that people they see online often act very differently on social media from how they act in person and at school.

  • MIDDLE SCHOOL GIRL: That’s what a lot of people do. Like, they won’t say it to your face, but they will write it online…
  • MIDDLE SCHOOL BOY: I know people who, in person, like refuse to swear. And online, it’s every other word.
  • MIDDLE SCHOOL GIRL: I think people get – like when they get on Facebook, they get ruthless, stuff like that. …They act different in school and stuff like that, but when they get online, they like a totally different person. You get a lot of confidence.
  • HIGH SCHOOL BOY: [There’s] this real quiet girl who go to my school, right, but when she’s on Facebook she talks like some wild – like, be rapping and talking about who she knew and some more stuff and you would, like, never think that’s her. You would think that’s somebody else …

Teens also identified specific online social spaces — open comment spaces and question and answer sites — that feel particularly unwelcoming:

  • HIGH SCHOOL BOY: YouTube comments are pretty bad. They’re, like, oh my God.
  • HIGH SCHOOL BOY: I have a friend who came out and he had a Formspring21 and, like, a bunch of people from this school, like, attacked his Formspring and, like, wrote really, really homophobic things on it.

Often teens felt bolder, ruder, or more empowered because they did not fear physical violence in the online space. One middle school girl told us that she thought people were ruder online “because you can’t hurt anybody online. You can’t punch nobody through the screen.”

  • MIDDLE SCHOOL GIRL 1. “I think I act ruder to online people.
  • MODERATOR. You act ruder? How come?
  • MIDDLE SCHOOL GIRL 2. Because she doesn’t have to see them, so they can’t beat her up.”

For some teens we spoke with – particularly middle school girls – fights and drama on social media flowed back and forth between school, the street, and Facebook, often resulting in physical fights during the in-person portions of the conflict.

  • MIDDLE SCHOOL GIRL: I read what they were talking about online, then I go offline and confront the person who was saying something to her.
  • MIDDLE SCHOOL GIRL: …Like that’s how most people start fighting because that’s how most of the fights in my school happen – because of some Facebook stuff, because of something you post, or like because somebody didn’t like your pictures.

One middle school girl detailed the circular flow of conflict between her social network site and her in-person life, and the ways that she, at her mother’s behest, tries to break the cycle.

  • “…the other day, Monday, I was not cool with somebody and so they tried to put on their status something about me. But I didn’t reply to that because my mother told me not to say nothing back because she didn’t want anything more to happen.”

She further explains a physical fight she was supposed to have and the ways in which others taunted her offline and online about her allegedly skipping out on the conflict. She describes her attempts to ignore online comments made about her “ducking” the fight, until the taunting escalated to insulting her friend.

  • “…I was supposed to be fighting somebody Monday, but the security guard picked me up and brung me back inside the school. Yeah, they were like, ‘oh my man, [MIDDLE SCHOOL GIRL] ducked it.’ I was like, that’s crazy, but I didn’t reply back and then she said something about my best friend…”

For other teens, the fact that they can act differently on social media translates into more real, positive experiences. Instead of seeing social media as a place that fomented conflict or bad behavior, some teens felt as though it increased a sense of closeness and allowed people to be authentic or more real than they could be offline:

  • HIGH SCHOOL GIRL: I think people act different on Facebook because that’s like their – I mean, I think the self that they show you on Facebook could be their true self, like who they actually want to be.
  • MIDDLE SCHOOL GIRL: Yeah, I act the same how I act in school. Like online I’m still goofy and stuff like that.

Several teens told us that they find friends and romantic interests easier to talk to and more open in these online social spaces.

  • HIGH SCHOOL GIRL: But I feel like, since it’s on Facebook, I guess it’s easier to talk to people, or like, admit things and, like, you just have, like, open conversations because they’re not, like face-to-face, so it’s not as, like – they’re not, like, embarrassed or nervous or something.
  • HIGH SCHOOL BOY: [O]n Facebook definitely people … can be more open in some ways than in real life. Like, they’ll say more than they will because it’s not, like, face-to-face, so. Like, some things that might be awkward in real life won’t be that awkward in a conversation on Facebook.

At least one teen with whom we spoke attributed the ease of conversation in social media with a sense of privacy in social chat spaces:

  • MIDDLE SCHOOL BOY: I don’t know, it just feels like in person, it can be awkward and weird if you’re trying to tell something, like, personal and secret because you’re looking at them… But like on a Facebook chat, it is very – it’s like there’s no one unless it’s like a hacker or something. But that’s rare. You can talk where you can actually tell them lots of things, or send them a private message, not, like, public.

And others do not find friends changed when they talk to them online:

  • HIGH SCHOOL GIRL: I don’t really have a like, kind of, issue, I guess. I mean, when I talk to someone online – like … my best friend since sixth grade – she doesn’t change when she’s online or when I see her in person. I don’t really get to see her that often because she goes to a different school, but no, she doesn’t ever change.

Other teens spoke of the challenges of managing disparate friend groups in the same public space visible to all of them:

  • HIGH SCHOOL GIRL: Well, I think – I still – I think people still make personas in real life too. It’s just, like, like if I’m with a different group of friends I’ll be more one way than I am with another group of friends just because that’s how – it’s more comfortable for them and it makes it fun for the group.

Section 2: Teens generally report positive personal outcomes from their interactions on social network sites.

We asked teens a series of questions about outcomes from experiences they may have had interacting with other people on a social network site (in total, we asked about two positive outcomes and six negative outcomes). The largest group of teens say they have had experiences that made them feel good about themselves and that made them feel closer to another person on a social network. Nearly two-thirds (65%) of social media-using teens say they personally have had an experience on a social network site that made them feel good about themselves and 58% say they felt closer to another person because of an experience on a social network site. In total, 78% of teens say they have had at least one of the two positive experiences we asked about in our survey.

Still, a substantial number of teens report specific negative experiences on social network sites. Fully 41% of social media using teens report having at least one negative experience out of the six unique experiences we measured.

Overall, boys and girls do not show any differences in their likelihood of experiencing either positive or negative outcomes from interactions with other people over social media. Bullied teens and teens who have directly felt meanness and cruelty through social media are more likely to experience any outcome except feeling good about themselves.22 What follows below is a closer look at the teens who experience different positive and negative impacts on social network sites.

Personal experiences on social network sites

Made you feel good about yourself

Among older teens ages 14-17, 71% say they have felt good about themselves because of a social network site experience, compared with half (50%) of younger teens. Teens with more public online profiles more often reported feeling good about themselves because of a social media moment. While 69% of daily social network site users and 67% of weekly users said an experience there made them feel good about themselves, 43% of those who visit the sites less often said the same.

Made you feel closer to another person

Teens from higher income households (earning $50,000 or more annually) were more likely than those from lower income homes to say that an experience on a social network site made them feel closer to another person.

Resulted in a face-to-face argument or confrontation with someone

Analysis of the data did not show any statistically significant differences among teens in their likelihood to report a having a face-to-face argument or confrontation with someone because of something that happened on a social network site.

Ended your friendship with someone

Twitter users were more likely to report ending a friendship (34% vs. 20% of non-users) because of an experience on a social network site. Daily social media users were also more likely than less frequent users to say they had ended a friendship with someone because of an experience on a social network site, with 26% of daily users reporting this, as did 20% of weekly users and 8% of those who use the sites less often.

Caused a problem with your parents

Black teens were more likely than whites or Latinos to say that they had an experience on a social network site that had gotten them in trouble with their parents: 27% of black social media-using teens report that, as did 11% of white teens, and 9% of Latino teens.

Made you feel nervous about going to school the next day

Younger teens more often say that an experience on a social network site made them nervous about going to school the next day: 20% of younger teens reported this, compared with 11% of older teens. Drilling down, this nervousness is most often felt by younger girls, of whom 27% said they had felt this way after a social network site experience. Twitter users are more likely than non-users to say they have felt nervous about going to school (24% vs. 10%) because of incidents on social network sites.

Resulted in a physical fight with someone

While a relatively rare occurrence overall, frequent users of social network sites were more likely to get in a physical fight because of an experience on the site – 9% of daily users and 10% of weekly users report this experience compared with just 1% of less frequent users.

Got you in trouble at school

Teens from lower-income households (those earning less than $50,000 annually) are more likely than higher-income teens to report getting in trouble at school because of an experience on a social network site (10% compared with 3%).

Section 3: Teens’ experiences witnessing (or being subjected to) mean or cruel behavior on social network sites

88% of social media-using teens have seen someone be mean or cruel on a social network site.

In addition to all the specific outcomes asked of teens that we detailed above, the survey also asked about whether teens have witnessed or experienced “someone being mean or cruel online” when they are on a social network site. Among social media users, 88% say they have seen someone be mean or cruel to another person on a social network site: nearly half (47%) say they see such behavior “only once in a while,” while close to a third (29%) say they see meanness on social network sites “sometimes,” and 12% say they witness cruel behavior “frequently.” Teens are more likely than adults to report seeing mean or cruel behavior online – 69% of social media-using adults report seeing such behavior, compared with 88% of teens). Social media-using teens also see mean and cruel behavior more frequently than their adult counterparts.

How often do you witness online cruelty and meanness?

Black teens more likely to say they see online cruelty “frequently.”

Black teens who use social media are more likely than Latino teens (though not white teens) to say they witness mean behavior on social network sites “frequently,” with 17% of black teens reporting seeing such behavior, along with 4% of Latino youth and 11% of white teens.

Lower-income teens more likely to say they never see online meanness.

Teens from lower-income households are more likely than those from higher-income households to say they never witness mean behavior on social network sites. Among teens from households earning less than $50,000 annually, 18% say they “never” see mean behavior on social media and 42% say they see it “only once in a while.” Just 7% of teens from wealthier families say they never see social media meanness and 50% say they see it only once in a while.

In the past 12 months when you have been on a social network site, has anyone been mean or cruel to you?

15% of social media-using teens have experienced someone being mean or cruel to them personally on a social network site.

Although a sizeable majority of social media-using teens have witnessed meanness or cruelty to others on a social network site, a much smaller number – 15% – have experienced such harassment themselves in the past 12 months.

Interestingly, adult social media users are just as likely to say that someone has been mean or cruel to them on social media in the last year as youth, with 13% reporting that someone had been mean or cruel to them on a social network site in the last 12 months.

Social network site-based meanness is experienced by all groups equally.

Among the 15% of social media-using teens who have experienced cruelty or mean behavior on social network sites, there are no statistically significant differences by age, gender, race, socio-economic status, or any other demographic characteristic measured.

Section 4: One in five teens say they were bullied in the past year. The most common occurrence was in-person bullying.

Beyond mean and cruel behavior on social network sites, the more serious issue of bullying among youth has garnered increased attention in the U.S. in recent years. In March and September of this year, the White House convened special conferences on bullying prevention, and schools across the country have stepped up efforts to address bullying through strict policies and educational programs.23

Yet, new research suggests that the rhetoric adults use to talk about bullying may not align with the language teens use to describe the same kinds of behavior.24 As such, reported instances of “bullying” may not be capturing the full picture of the sustained and hurtful harassment that is happening among youth.

Our construction of “mean and cruel” online behavior in this survey attempts to get at some of these behavioral distinctions captured by Marwick and boyd’s concept of “drama.” But neither our question language nor the term “drama” cover the entire landscape of teens’ social experiences online. For a subset of teens, bullying is a very real and very hurtful phenomenon, and that is why we asked both the “mean and cruel” and bullying questions in this survey.25

Overall, 19% of teens report that they have been bullied in the last 12 months under at least one of the four scenarios we queried in our survey –in person, by phone, text messaging, or online. And within that 19% who have been bullied, 50% of these teens say they were just bullied through one mode, while 50% said they were bullied in more than one place.

When teens were asked directly about instances of bullying over the past 12 months, the most common type of harassment reported was in-person. Some 12% of all teens ages 12-17 say they have been bullied face-to-face in the past year. Younger teens ages 12-13 are more likely than older teens ages 14-17 to say that they have experienced in-person bullying in the last year (17% vs. 10%). Looking more closely at variations by age, 12-year-olds stand out as reporting the most in-person harassment, with 22% saying they had to deal with bullying in the last year.

When younger teens and older teens are grouped together, there are no significant differences by gender and reported incidences of in-person bullying. There is a gap but not one that is large enough to be statistically significant: 9% of all boys ages 12-17 say they have experienced some form of in-person harassment in the past 12 months, compared with 15% of girls. However, when older and younger teens are sorted by gender, older teen boys ages 14-17 do stand out for being significantlyless likely to say they have endured in-person bullying in the past year (only 5% report this compared with 15% of older teen girls).

In the past 12 months, have you been bullied ____?

 

Fewer than one in ten teens report being bullied by phone, text, or online.

While the vast majority of teens, 87%, say they haven’t experienced in-person bullying over the past year, harassment that occurs through other communications channels can be equally hurtful. Overall, 9% of teens ages 12-17 say that they have endured bullying via text messaging. Another 8% say they have experienced some form of online bullying – such as through email, a social network site, or IM. And 7% say they have been bullied over the phone.

Surprisingly, although younger teens are more likely to experience in-person bullying, they are no more likely than older teens to report bullying in any other situation – via text messaging, online, or by phone. The situation with gender is just the opposite; while the gender differences with in-person bullying were not quite large enough to be significant, they are statistically significant for every form of technology-mediated bullying. Girls are more likely than boys to report bullying in every case. Teen girls are more likely than boys to report being bullied by text messaging (13% vs. 5%), online (12% vs. 4%), and by phone (11% vs. 4%).

Section 5: How teens see others respond to online cruelty

Most people ignore social media meanness, but a substantial number stand up for victims.

In the literature around bullying and harassment, much has been written about the power of the bystander to intervene (or not) in bullying incidents.

26

 While we don’t know whether the behavior teens see rises to the level of seriousness conveyed by the term bullying, teens witness a variety of responses to cruel behavior on social network sites. In this study, teens say that the most frequent thing they see when someone is being treated badly is for others to ignore what’s going on: 55% of those who witness cruel behavior say that this the most frequent response from others. Some 27% say they frequently see others defend the victim, 20% say they frequently see others tell the person being mean to stop, and 19% say they frequently see others join in the harassment.

When people act mean or cruel on social network sites, how often have you seen other people …?

In general, social media-using teens who have witnessed online cruelty are the most likely to report that others ignore the situation, with 95% of teens ever witnessing this, and 55% witnessing it frequently. Another 84% see people rising to the defense of the person being harassed, with 27% seeing people do it frequently. A similar 84% witness others telling someone to stop being mean or cruel, but teens see this behavior less frequently.

It is important to note that we are not arguing that those who ignore online cruelty are necessarily acting badly. In cases of online meanness and cruelty, it can be difficult to disentangle who, if anyone, is a “victim” and so it may be difficult to know who to defend, and who to tell to stop. Similarly, given that the intent and full context behind the meanness might be unknown to the viewer, ignoring online meanness can be a deliberate, viable, and effective strategy for addressing online meanness. Ignoring someone who is harassing someone else online could be the path of least resistance, or it could be an effective method for shutting down someone seeking attention. And it might be the case that people rise to the victim’s defense by using methods like private messages, emails, chats, or face-to-face interactions that outside observers cannot see.

Teens in our focus groups confirmed that they usually ignore drama and meanness when they see it on social media, and that the closeness of their relationship to the person under attack has great bearing on whether they intercede:

  • MIDDLE SCHOOL GIRL: Unless it’s like, my best friend. The only way I do it [comment in defense on someone else’s mean post] is like if they offend me. Like if somebody says something about [Friend1] or [Friend2], I’m going to say something back….If you just a friend I see from day to day and somebody says something about you, I’m going to look at it and keep moving.

Some teens are reluctant to report something they see on social media because they believe it is already so visible:

  • MODERATOR: Do you ever see stuff online and then say, I’ve got to tell someone about this?
  • MIDDLE SCHOOL BOY: No.
  • MIDDLE SCHOOL GIRL: It’s online, so everybody’s going to see it.
  • MIDDLE SCHOOL BOY: So what’s the point?

Other teens said they have taken steps to intervene – though there are often hurdles to standing up for someone. And sometimes intervening does not go well:

  • MIDDLE SCHOOL BOY: Once I was on [Google] Buzz and some person who was – I think he was a friend of one of my friends, I didn’t really know him, and he started talking like – he started talking trash to one of my pretty close friends. Then I just told him to back off and then he started talking back to me. So then I reported him and two of my other friends also reported him.

Other teens talked of using the social network site’s features for reporting bad behavior:

  • MIDDLE SCHOOL GIRL: I didn’t want to intervene, because I was kind of scared, like, oh my god, like, why was this person – there’s something wrong with this. And then later on, some – they called the person who had said that word – they called them another really derogatory term. And it’s just kind of like this circle of anger and really, really bad language.
  • MODERATOR: So did you do anything in that instance?
  • MIDDLE SCHOOL GIRL: I hit “report” for the comment. I was like, no thank you.

However, the sites’ reporting features are also easily abused. One teen details how he and ten friends used the report button to torment a girl on Facebook:

  • HIGH SCHOOL BOY 1: I was, like, with 10 friends and pretty much we just – like, we all logged in. Like, we’d log in, log out and we all, like, reported on, like, this random girl.
  • MODERATOR: You just reported? You all logged in and just reported her for anything? Anything specific?
  • HIGH SCHOOL BOY 1: We just, like, blocked her from, like, a fake account or something.
  • MODERATOR: And what happened? What was the result? Did she get blocked? Did she have problems?
  • HIGH SCHOOL BOY 1: We were hoping she would get blocked but nothing happened. Because she has, like, 700 friends and, like, updates her status every five seconds, so.
  • HIGH SCHOOL GIRL: Why did you dislike her?
  • HIGH SCHOOL BOY 1: I didn’t dislike her. We were just messing with her.
  • HIGH SCHOOL BOY 2: Why were you messing with her?
  • HIGH SCHOOL BOY 1: Because it was a Friday night and we – it was late and we were bored and we wanted to have fun.

Two-thirds of teens who have witnessed online cruelty have also witnessed others joining in.

However, despite the high likelihood of teens seeing bystanders responding helpfully by standing up for or defending the attacked individual, they are also likely to witness others joining in the harassment. Two-thirds (67%) of teens on social network sites witness others joining in the harassment they have seen. Still, teens are slightly more likely to say they see piling on “once in a while” (24%) than “sometimes” (23%) or frequently (19%).

While all teens mostly ignore the online harassment they see, black teens are more likely to see others joining in harassment.27

Among teens who have witnessed others being mean or cruel on a social network site, white teens are more likely than black or Latino teens to say they frequently see people ignore what is going on (62% of white teens see that frequently, compared with 45% of blacks and 36% of Latinos). Whites are also more likely to frequently see someone defend the victim (33% vs. 20% of blacks and 10% of Latinos) and to frequently see someone tell the person to stop (25% vs. 12% of both blacks and Latinos).

Conversely, black teens are much more likely to report seeing people frequently joining in on the harassment, with 35% of black teens reporting witnessing this frequently, compared with 15% of both Latinos and whites. Latino teens are the most likely to report that they do not see any of the behaviors – ignoring, standing up, or joining in – frequently. Half (50%) of Latino teens who have witnessed others being mean or cruel do not see any behaviors frequently, compared with 29% of blacks and 21% of whites.

Older and higher socio-economic status teens are more likely to see others ignoring social media meanness.

Teens from families earning $30,000 or more annually and teens with parents with greater levels of education (some college coursework or a college degree) are both more likely to say they frequently see people ignoring the mean behavior they see on social network sites than are teens from lower income and education backgrounds. Older teens, more often older boys 14 to 17, are more likely to say that they frequently see people ignoring mean behavior when they see it on social network sites. Nearly 6 in 10 (59%) 14-17 year-olds and 62% of older boys say they frequently see people ignore mean behavior.

Girls and higher socio-economic status teens are more likely to see others defending victims of harassment.

Girls and older teens are more likely to say that they frequently see others defend the victim; with 33% of girls, and 29% of older teens 14-17 doing so. The group least likely to see this behavior is the youngest boys, of whom only 7% frequently see others defend people from online cruelty.

Teens from wealthier families are more likely to see others telling the person to stop being mean and cruel.

Fewer than half (42%) of teens from families earning less than $30,000 annually see people ask others to stop their mean behavior on a social network site compared with 61% of teens from families that earn more annually.

Section 6: How do teens respond themselves when they see online cruelty or meanness?

Most teens say they just ignore the mean behavior they see on a social media platform.

In addition to asking about the bystander behavior that teens witness in others on social media, we asked them about their own behavior. Social media-using teens are most likely to say they ignore the behavior themselves (91% of teens say they do this, and more than a third (35%) say they do this frequently). Social media-using teens are also likely to say they have defended the victim (80% have done so, 25% do so frequently) and to have told the other person to stop being mean and cruel (79% have done this, 20% have done so frequently). For ignoring, defending, and telling someone to stop, the most common response of these teens was that they do these things “sometimes.”

Personal responses to bullying

21% of social media users admit to joining in at least once in a while.

One in five (21%) social media-using teens who have witnessed online cruelty say they have joined in. Most (12%) say they join in the mean behavior “once in a while,” 7% say they do so “sometimes,” and 2% say they do it “frequently.”

White teens and boys are more likely to ignore online cruelty.

There are fewer variations in the actions that teens report that they take to respond to online mean behavior. White teens are more likely to say that they frequently ignore what is going on than Latino teens (39% vs. 23%), and teens from families with better-educated parents (some college training or a college degree) are more likely than those whose parents lack a high school diploma to say they frequently ignore online cruelty.

Boys, particularly younger boys ages 12-13, seem to have more of a stay-out-of-it approach to social network site drama. They are more likely to report that they frequently ignore what is going on when they personally witness online cruelty. Two in five (41%) boys (vs. 28% of girls) and 64% of 12-13 year-old boys say they frequently ignore online meanness when they see it on social network sites.

Older teen boys are more likely than older girls to say they have personally joined in on the harassment of someone on a social network site frequently – 4% of boys 14 to 17 say they do this frequently, compared with 1% of girls the same age.

Section 7: Negative experiences online are tied to teens having negative feelings about social media.

One major relationship in the survey data was the clustering of negative experiences. Teens who have had one negative experience, outcome, or attitude toward social media, and teens who have experienced bullying of any kind, are much more likely to say they have experienced many of the other unpleasant experiences or outcomes on social network sites included on our survey. The relationship is not clear-cut, however, and in some notable cases, teens who have weathered a variety of difficult online experiences are also more likely than teens who have not had these challenges to report positive outcomes and experiences as well.

Nevertheless, independent of other demographic factors, the experiences a person has on social media are associated with how they feel about it. Some demographic groups and individuals may be more likely to experience some of these negatives because of socio-cultural attitudes toward aggression and standing up for yourself, or weakness and status seeking.28. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, New York. See especially chapter 8.] But overall, the data suggest it is the experiencesthat people have on social media that might color their attitudes toward it, as well as the likelihood that they will have other negative interactions and outcomes on those sites.

Direct experiences with online cruelty on social media relates to a host of other negative experiences.

Having a direct experience with social media meanness is highly correlated with other negative outcomes and experience. Teens who say they have been harassed are more likely to say they have witnessed other people being mean on social media with some frequency. They are also more likely to say they have had negative outcomes from an experience on a social network site such as getting in trouble at school, getting into a physical fight, or losing a friendship, and are more likely to say they have experienced three or more of these unpleasant results. And it may be that these direct negative experiences lead to a more negative view of their experiences with people on social media generally. Teens who have had others be mean or cruel to them on social network sites are more likely to say that their experience is that most people on social network sites are generally unkind to one another.

Teens who have experienced social media cruelty personally are more likely to...

Those who have experienced negative outcomes from social media activity such as in-person confrontations or fights are more likely to be bullied, see social media meanness, and believe that people on social media are unkind.

Experiencing negative outcomes29 from interactions on social media also interacts with a teen’s likelihood of experiencing other negative things in his or her life. These teens are more likely to report being bullied anywhere – online, on the phone, by text message, or in person. Teens who have had any negative outcomes are more likely to witness social media meanness, and more likely to express gloomy views about the way they see people behaving on social media. The one exception to this is teens who report getting in trouble with their parents because of something that happened on social media; they are not more likely to believe everyone on social media is unkind.

Teens who have experienced any negative outcomes are more likely to...

On the flip side, teens who have negative outcomes from social media experiences are also more likely to have experienced positive social media outcomes. A greater proportion of these teens with unpleasant outcomes say they became closer to someone because of a social media experience and say they have had an experience on a social network site that made them feel good about themselves.

Teens who witness social media cruelty are more likely to experience nearly every other negative experience asked about on the survey.

A large group of teens witness cruelty on social media – 88% of social media users. These teens are also more likely to say they have experienced nearly every other negative item on our survey. These witnesses to cruelty are more likely to experience cruelty themselves, and to be bullied anywhere. They are also more likely to report any negative outcome instigated by a social media experience, and to report having more negative outcomes. And they are more likely to say that they believe people on social media are unkind.

Teens who witness social media cruelty are also more likely to...

But given how large the group of witnesses to online cruelty is, it may be better to ask, who are the teens who have not seen these events? Teens who have not witnessed online cruelty are more likely to be teens who do not use social network sites that much; a full quarter of teens who use social network sites less than monthly have never seen online cruelty, as opposed to 12% of weekly users and less than 10% of daily users who have never seen it. These teens are likely to be disconnected in other ways as well, as they are substantially less likely to have a mobile phone. They are also more likely to come from lower-income households (earning less than $50,000 annually) and from homes with younger parents (under age 40).

Broad negative attitudes toward others on social media may shape or be shaped by other challenging experiences on those networks.

Teens who believe that other people are mostly unkind on social network sites are more likely to have witnessed or experienced negative things on social media. Those with a more negative attitude are more likely to have frequently witnessed and experienced meanness on social network sites. They are also more likely to have experienced bullying – in person, by text message, or online – and are more likely to have endured 2 or more of the negative outcomes of online social interactions we asked about on our survey.

Teens who say people are mostly unkind on social network sites are more likely to...

Section 8: Influencers and Advice-Givers

Parents, teachers, and media are teens’ biggest sources for general advice about how to use the internet and cell phones responsibly and safely.

As teens navigate difficult online experiences, where do they get advice (solicited and not)? In our survey, we asked all teen internet or cell phone users a general question about the people and places from which they had ever received advice about how to use mobile phones and the internet “responsibly and safely.”

The data suggest that teens hear from a variety of sources, but most frequently say their parents give them advice about online safety and responsible behavior, with 86% of teens reporting advice from a parent. Another 70% of teens say they have received advice about online safety from a teacher or another adult at school, and more than half (54%) of teens say they have gotten advice from television, radio, newspapers, or magazines. Nearly half of teens have received advice from younger and older relatives – siblings, cousins, aunts, grandparents – and friends. About a third of teens (34%) say they have gotten online safety advice from websites, and about one in five (21%) have gotten information from the internet or mobile phone service providers. Slightly fewer than one in five (18%) have gotten safety information from a librarian, and another handful volunteered that they attended a school event on online safety.

The most noticeable aspect of teens’ answers was the diversity of people and groups that came up – everyone from bus drivers to bosses, camp counselors, neighbors, doctors, police, at after school programs, and from billboards and flyers to a “random lady in Wal-Mart.” Teens are getting advice about online safety from many different parts of their lives.30

This question did not address whether the advice was requested or wanted, nor whether it was useful, accurate, or well-received. We explored some of these issues in an additional series of questions discussed later in this section.

Girls are more likely than boys to receive advice from people other than parents.

Everyone was equally likely to receive general advice about internet safety from their parents. With other sources of advice, variations emerge. Girls are more likely than boys to have received advice from teachers, media, siblings, older relatives, friends, and websites. Younger teens are more likely to have received advice from older relatives, siblings, and librarians. In keeping with an established pattern of greater surveillance by parents, younger girls are the most likely to report receiving advice from teachers, media, older relatives, friends, siblings, websites, and librarians. For teens of all ages and genders, parents are the most commonly mentioned source for advice about online safety.

Teens average 5 sources from which they receive advice about online safety and responsibility.

Almost all teens receive advice from someone – whether wanted or not – about how to use the internet safely and responsibly. Just 2% of teens said they had not gotten advice from anyone or any place about how to be safe online. Indeed, most teens are receiving advice from multiple sources. The average number of people or places a teen had received online safety advice from was 5. The bulk of teens received advice from between 3 and 6 different types of people, organizations, or entities.

Who gives teens online safety advice pt 1

Latino teens are more likely than white teens to get advice from siblings or cousins, and black and Latino teens are more likely than whites to get advice from older relatives.

Lower-income teens from families earning less than $50,000 annually are more likely to seek advice from relatives – older relatives like aunts and uncles and younger relatives like brothers, sisters, and cousins. More than half of lower-income teens seek advice from relatives, while just 40% of higher income teens use relatives as a source of advice. Lower-income teens are also more likely than teens from wealthier homes to ask a librarian for general advice about online safety and responsible behavior (20% vs. 15%).

Who gives teens online safety advice pt 2

About a third of teens who witness online cruelty seek advice.

In addition to the question we asked teens about who gives them advice, we also asked whether teens have sought out advice when they have a problem, and the sources of advice they choose. Not all teens are muddling through these negative (and positive) online experiences by themselves. A bit more than a third of teens (36%) who have seen others be mean or cruel on a social network site say they have asked or looked for advice about what to do. Girls, particularly younger girls, are more likely to seek advice about troubling social media experiences; 51% of girls have sought advice, compared with 20% of boys. Broken out by age, 58% of younger girls ages 12-13 and 48% of older girls ages 14-17 have sought advice, compared with 19% of younger and 20% of older boys.

When you've seen or experienced someone being cruel or mean online, have you ever looked for or asked someone for advice about what to do?

Bullied teens and teens who have had negative experiences on social media are more likely to seek advice.

Teens who say they have been bullied are also more likely to say they have sought advice about what they witnessed or experienced online. More than half (56%) of bullied teens have looked for advice when they have witnessed meanness or cruelty, compared with 30% of teens who have not been bullied. Teens who have experienced cruelty on social network sites or who have had other negative experiences because of social media are also more likely than kids without these experiences to ask for advice. Nearly two-thirds (62%) of teens who have experienced cruelty have looked for advice, compared with 31% of those who have not experienced cruelty. Among teens who have had multiple (more than three) negative outcomes from experiences on social media, 55% of them have sought advice, compared with 29% of those who have not had any of the other negative outcomes from social media interaction detailed on the survey. However, teens who have had positive experiences on social media (strengthened friendships, felt good about themselves) also are more likely than those who have not have any of the positive (or any negative) experiences to seek advice about online issues. Two in five (41%) teens with positive experiences sought advice, compared with 15% of those who have not had either of the positive experiences we asked about. Teens who have not had any of the positive or negative outcomes from online interaction that we queried are more often low-level users of social network sites – generally visiting them less than monthly.

Boys are less likely to seek online advice after witnessing social media meanness.

Teens who report that they have not sought advice from someone after witnessing meanness or cruelty on social network sites are more likely to be boys than girls (80% of boys report they have not sought advice versus 49% of girls) and are also more likely to be older. Among teens who have witnessed social media meanness, 58% of younger teens ages 12-13 say they have not sought advice, nor have 66% of teens ages 14-17. There are no statistically significant differences between ethnic groups or by socio-economic status in the likelihood of seeking advice about witnessed meanness.

Teens who have not sought advice are also likely to have otherwise not suffered from much in the way of negative experiences on social media – they’re more likely to report in their experience that most people their age are kind to one another on social media and are less likely to have experienced online cruelty directly themselves or been bullied anywhere in the last 12 months.

It may also be that teens who did not seek advice after witnessing social media meanness did not see something that required intervention or advice – either because it was not serious, the conflict resolved on its own, or they had experience with this behavior and knew how to handle it themselves.

Peers and parents are the go-to source of advice to cope with online harassment.

Among teens who have sought out advice on how to cope with or respond to a bad online experience, who do they go to for such information? Of the teens who have witnessed online cruelty and then sought advice for how to handle it, more than half seek help from a friend or peer. Another third seek out advice from parents. Much smaller numbers of teens say they look to a sibling or cousin for advice, or ask a teacher. A handful of teens seek advice from another relative like an aunt or uncle, or a youth pastor/religious leader, and another very small number visit websites for advice.

Girls and boys are equally likely to seek advice from difference sources, but younger teens ages 12-13 are much more likely to rely on friends and peers than older teens, while older teens are more like than younger teens to ask parents for advice. The youngest girls are the most likely to rely on friends for advice.

Who or what did you turn to for advice?

Teens say the advice they get from friends and parents about how to deal with online cruelty is helpful.

Overwhelmingly, those teens who ask for advice about online cruelty they witnessed or experienced think the advice they got was helpful. More than nine in ten of those asking for advice (92%) say that the advice was good. Another 6% say the advice they got didn’t make any difference in their situation and 2% say they looked or asked for advice but did not find it or receive it. None of our respondents said the advice they got was not helpful.

Parents: Most important in shaping teens’ attitudes toward appropriate online behavior31

We asked teens who (or what) was the biggest influence on what they think is appropriate or inappropriate behavior on a cell phone or online, and a majority – 58% – say their parents have the greatest influence. White teens are more likely to say parents than Latino teens (63% vs. 42%), and teens from the wealthiest families (earning more than $75,000 a year) are more like to point to parents than teens from any other income group. Teens whose parents lack a high school degree are the only group for which parents are not the main source of influence – these teens are more likely to cite “no one” (36%) than to cite parents (28%). There are very few differences in influencers by age or gender of the teen. Older teens ages 14-17 are more likely to specify friends as their biggest influence, with 22% of that age group reporting that, while 10% of younger users point to friends as their source of their online attitudes.

Parent internet users are also more likely to serve as a teen’s biggest influence on online and cell phone behavior than parents who do not use the internet: teens with online parents are more likely to report that parents are their biggest influence than teens whose parents do not go online (60% vs. 37%.)

Who has been the biggest influence on what you think is appropriate or inappropriate when you are using a cell phone or going online?

Teens who use social media are more likely than teens who do not to say that friends (21% vs. 6%) and siblings (13% vs. 4%) are their biggest influence. Teens who do not use social media (generally, younger teens, particularly boys) are more likely to say that their parents are the most influential (68% vs. 54%).

Teens who have witnessed cruel behavior online are more likely than those who have not witnessed meanness to say that their parents (57% vs. 37%) and friends (22% vs. 8%) are the biggest influences on their vision of appropriate online and on phone behavior. On the flip side, teens who have not witnessed online cruelty more often say that “no one” is their biggest influence around online behavior, with 46% of such teens saying so, compared with 15% of those who have been exposed to online cruelty.

  1. Adult data in this report come from Pew Internet’s August 2011 Tracking Survey among adults 18 and older, n=2260. For this analysis, the question asked of adults was slightly different than the one asked of teens: “Overall, in your experience, are people mostly kind or mostly unkind to one another on social networking sites?”
  2. Word clouds were created with wordle.net. The size of the word increases the more frequently it is found in the set of words included in the cloud. So, the most frequently occurring words are the largest.
  3. Formspring is an anonymous question and answer website: http://www.formspring.me
  4. This theme around teens with a history of bullying and negative experiences on social media will be explored in greater depth in Section 7.
  5. For more information, see: Background on White House Conference on Bullying Prevention http://www.whitehouse.gov/the-press-office/2011/03/10/background-white-house-conference-bullying-prevention
  6. In their research, Alice Marwick and danah boyd observed that the term “bullying” suggests a victim narrative and a level of immaturity that some teens do not wish to identify with, even if they have experienced behaviors that adults may label as such. Instead, teens more often use the term “drama,” which teens view as distinct from bullying, but allows them to “distance themselves from practices which adults may conceptualize as bullying.” See: Alice Marwick and danah boyd. (2011). "The Drama! Teen Conflict in Networked Publics." Paper presented at the Oxford Internet Institute Decade in Internet Time Symposium, September 22. Draft version available at: http://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=1926349
  7. Our bullying question was based on Dr. Michele Ybarra’s work and was asked as follows: “In the past 12 months, have you been bullied (INSERT IN ORDER)? In person? By phone call – that is, on a landline or cell? By text message? Online (IF NECESSARY, such as through email, a social networking site or instant messaging)?” Response options were yes or no to each sub question.
  8. See Empowering Bystanders in Bullying Prevention By Stan Davis and Julia Davis, Chapter 1, for an overview of research around bystanders and their importance in combating bullying. http://books.google.com/books?hl=en&lr=&id= fQ0tOKaMg5sC&oi=fnd&pg=PR5&dq=empowering+bystanders+in+bullying+prevention&ots=PXXUxdKkjP&sig=86gAL4TLHjEHEyzr283UQyD54Zw#v=onepage&q&f=false
  9. Teens whose parent or guardian listened in on their interview for this study were significantly more likely to say they had “frequently” witnessed others defending a victim (49% vs. 25% of teens who completed their interview without a parent on the phone), and to say that they saw others telling people to stop their mean behavior on a social network site frequently (47% vs. 18%). There were no other statistically significant differences in responses to these reaction questions between these two groups, nor were there any difference in how the teen reported responding her or himself to online cruelty.
  10. See: Alice Marwick and danah boyd. (2011). “The Drama! Teen Conflict in Networked Publics.” Paper presented at the Oxford Internet Institute Decade in Internet Time Symposium, September 22. Draft version available at: http://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=1926349. Ness, Cindy D. (2004) “Why Girls Fight: Female Youth Violence in the Inner City,” in Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, Vol. 595, pp. 32-48. Merten, Don E. (1997) “The Meaning of Meanness: Popularity, Competition and Conflict among Junior High School Girls.” Sociology of Education, Vol. 70, No. 3, pp. 175-191. Simmons, Rachel. (2011) Odd Girl Out: The Hidden Culture of Aggression in Girls. [revised and updated, 2nd edition
  11. Negative outcomes refer to the following experiences that were the result of something that occurred on a social network site: a face-to-face argument or confrontation with someone, a problem with your parents, a physical fight with someone else, a friendship with someone ended, feeling nervous about going to school the next day, and getting in trouble at school.
  12. While this question on the survey offered a large variety of response options, many of the responses discussed here came from the recorded responses to the “someone or somewhere else” portion of the question. For the full questions wording, please see the questionnaire at the back of this report, or on our website, pewinternet.org.
  13. Teens whose parent or guardian listened in on their interview for this study were notably less likely than teens whose parents did not listen to the interview to point to brothers or sisters as their biggest influence on appropriate online and cell phone behavior. However, this may be because teens whose parents listen to their interview are overwhelmingly younger, and they may be less likely to have siblings old enough to be a digital influence.