November 9, 2011

Teens, kindness and cruelty on social network sites

The majority of teen social media users find online social networks to be “mostly kind” spaces, yet 88% have witnessed mean or cruel behavior there

15% of social media-using teens say they have been the target of mean or cruel behavior on the sites 

Parents and peers serve as the most important influences and sources of advice on online safety issues

WASHINGTON – As social media use has become pervasive in the lives of American teens, a new study finds that 69% of the teenagers who use social networking sites say their peers are mostly kind to one another on such sites. Still, 88% of these teens say they have witnessed people being mean and cruel to another person on the sites, and 15% report that they have been the target of mean or cruel behavior on social network sites.

Adult social network users are less likely to say they witness or experience this type of behavior, but they still report that it is prevalent: 69% of the adults who use social networking sites say they have seen people be mean and cruel to others on those sites.

These findings and others are part of a new in-depth study released November 9th that examines teens’ behavior and experiences on social network sites, their privacy and safety practices, and the role of parents in digital safekeeping.

Social media use is widespread among teens. Fully 95% of all teens ages 12-17 are now online and 80% of online teens are users of social media sites. Teens of all ages and backgrounds are witnessing these mean behaviors online and are reacting in a variety of ways:

  • 90% of teen social media users say they have ignored the mean behavior they have witnessed on a social network site.
  • 80% say they have personally defended a victim of meanness and cruelty.
  • 79% say they have told someone to stop their mean behavior on a social network site.
  • However, 21% of social media-using teens say they have personally joined in on the harassment of others on a social network site.

“Social networking sites have created new spaces for teens to interact and they witness a mixture of altruism and cruelty on those sites,” said Amanda Lenhart, lead author of a new report from the Pew Research Center’s Internet & American Life Project. “For most teens, these are exciting and rewarding spaces. But the majority have also seen a darker side. And for a subset of teens, the world of social media isn’t a pretty place because it presents a climate of drama and mean behavior.”

The findings of the study are detailed in a new report called “Teens, Kindness and Cruelty on Social Network Sites: How American teens navigate the new world of ‘digital citizenship’.” The report, which is based on seven focus groups with teens and a nationally representative survey of 799 youth ages 12-17 and their parents, was conducted by the Pew Research Center’s Internet & American Life Project in partnership with the Family Online Safety Institute (FOSI) and with the support of Cable in the Classroom. The families were contacted on landlines and cell phones, and interviews were conducted in English and Spanish. The findings will be presented at a conference organized by FOSI on November 9th.

In addition to probing the behaviors that teens witness or experience on social network sites, this study also examines instances of bullying that happen online and offline. Among teens, 19% report having experienced bullying anywhere – in person, by text message, by phone call or online – in the last 12 months.

  • 12% of all teens report being bullied in person in the last 12 months
  • 9% of all teens say they were bullied by text message in the last 12 months
  • 8% say they have experienced some type of online bullying – such as through email, a social network site or instant messaging
  • 7% of teens say they’ve been bullied by voice calls over the phone.

Just as teens experience kindness as well as cruelty in online social spaces, so do their interactions within these spaces produce positive as well as negative outcomes. A majority of teens who use social network sites (78%) reported a positive outcome from their social media interactions, such as feeling good about themselves or deepening a friendship with another person. At the same time, some 41% of social media-using teens reported at least one negative outcome:

  • 25% of social media-using teens had an experience on a social network site that resulted in a face-to-face argument or confrontation with someone.
  • 22% had an experience that ended their friendship with someone.
  • 13% had an experience that caused a problem with their parents.
  • 13% felt nervous about going to school the next day because of an experience on a social network site.
  • 8% got into a physical fight with someone else because of something that happened on a social network site.
  • 6% got in trouble at school because of an experience on a social network site.

As they try to navigate these sometimes challenging online social environments, virtually all teens say they receive advice about online safety from a wide variety of people in their lives. Parents are the top source:  86% of teens say have they received advice from their parents about how to use the internet safely and responsibly, and 70% have received advice from a teacher or other adult at school. Teens report that parents are also the biggest influence on shaping what they think is appropriate or inappropriate behavior when going online or using a cell phone. At the same time, 18% of teens say that “no one” has influenced them about their attitudes towards online behavior.

When teens have a specific problem – like seeing mean or cruel behavior on a social network site – about a third (36%) seek advice on how to cope. Those teens who do reach out for advice in these situations, tend to gravitate towards their friends and peers (53%) and parents (36%), and they almost universally say the advice they get is helpful.

Beyond the instances of “social media meanness” that teens report to adults, much of the online teen experience may be hidden from full public view. Most teens with social network site profiles say that the profile they use most often is set to private, so only their friends can see the content that they post (62% of such teens say this). One in five (19%) say their profile is partially private – meaning that only friends of friends or a network can see what they post – while 17% say that their most-used profile is fully public.

Teens are not the only ones navigating these waters, as families have also adopted a number of approaches to modern digital parenting. Many parents talk with teens about online safety or friend their children on social networks, while others have adopted a more technical approach towards monitoring their child’s online behavior:

  • 80% of parents who use social media (and who also have a child who uses social media) have friended their child on these sites.
  • 77% of parents of internet users have checked which websites their child visits, up from 65% of parents who did this in 2006.
  • 66% of parents have checked to see what information is available online about their child.
  • 54% of parents of internet users report using parental controls or other means of filtering, monitoring or blocking their child’s online activities.

However, friending one’s child on social media does not always head off problems.  One in five teens who have been friended by their parents (18%) have experienced a problem with their parents because of something that happened on an online social network, compared with 5% of such teens who are not friends with their parents on a social network site.

“When a child accepts a parent’s friend request, it doesn’t necessarily mean that the parent has a backstage pass to their child’s social life,” said Mary Madden, co-author of the report. “Teens can present a limited profile to certain friends and are active users of private messaging channels, so the content that parents see may represent just a small fraction of the activity on their teen’s profile.”

About the Pew Research Center’s Internet & American Life Project

The Pew Research Center’s Internet & American Life Project is one of seven projects that make up the Pew Research Center, a nonpartisan, nonprofit “fact tank” that provides information on the issues, attitudes and trends shaping America and the world. The Project produces reports exploring the impact of the Internet on families, communities, work and home, daily life, education, health care, and civic and political life. The Project aims to be an authoritative source on the evolution of the Internet through surveys that examine how Americans use the Internet and how their activities affect their lives. For more information, visit www.pewinternet.org.

About Cable in the Classroom

Cable in the Classroom (CIC), the national education foundation of the U.S. cable industry, advocates for digital citizenship and the visionary, sensible, and effective use of cable’s broadband technology, services, and content in teaching and learning.  Since 1989, CIC has also supported the complimentary provision, by cable companies and programmers, of broadband and multichannel video services and educational content to the nation’s schools. For more information, visit www.ciconline.org.

About the Family Online Safety Institute

The Family Online Safety Institute (FOSI) works to make the online world safer for kids and their families by identifying and promoting best practices, tools and methods that also respect free speech. FOSI is a trusted, international convener, bringing together leaders in government, industry and the nonprofit sectors to collaborate and innovate new solutions in child safety in a Web 2.0 world. FOSI’s members include: AOL, AT&T, BT Retail, Comcast, Disney, Entertainment Software Association, Facebook, France Telecom, Google, GSM Association, Microsoft, Motion Picture Association of America, NCTA, Nominum, Optenet, RuleSpace, Sprint, StreamShield, Symantec, Time Warner Cable, Telefónica, TELMEX, USTelecom, The Wireless Foundation, Verizon and Yahoo!. For more information, visit www.fosi.org.