February 9, 2012

The tone of life on social networking sites

The tone of life on social networking sites

The overall social and emotional climate of social networking sites (SNS) is a very positive one where adult users get personal rewards and satisfactions at far higher levels than they encounter anti-social people or have ill consequences from their encounters. A nationally representative phone survey of American adults finds that:

  • 85% of SNS-using adults say that their experience on the sites is that people are mostly kind, compared with 5% who say people they observe on the sites are mostly unkind and another 5% who say their answer depends on the situation.
  • 68% of SNS users said they had an experience that made them feel good about themselves.
  • 61% had experiences that made them feel closer to another person. (Many said they had both experiences.)
  • 39% of SNS-using adults say they frequently see acts of generosity by other SNS users and another 36% say they sometimes see others behaving generously and helpfully. By comparison, 18% of SNS-using adults say they see helpful behavior “only once in a while” and 5% say they never see generosity exhibited by others on social networking sites.

At the same time, notable proportions of SNS users do witness bad behavior on those sites and nearly a third have experienced some negative outcomes from their experiences on social networking sites. Some 49% of SNS-using adults said they have seen mean or cruel behavior displayed by others at least occasionally. And 26% said they had experienced at least one of the bad outcomes that were queried in the survey. Those bad outcomes were:

  • 15% of adult SNS users said they had an experience on the site that ended their friendship with someone.
  • 12% of adult SNS users had an experience that resulted in a face-to-face argument or confrontation with someone.
  • 11% of adult SNS users had an experience on the site that caused a problem with their family.
  • 3% of SNS-using adults said they had gotten into a physical fight with someone based on an experience they had on the site. 
  • 3% of adult SNS users said their use of the site had gotten them in trouble at work because of something that happened on the site.

In addition, 13% of adult SNS users said that someone had acted in a mean or cruel way towards them on a social networking site in the past 12 months.

Adults are generally more positive and less negative than teens about the behavior of others and their own experiences on social networking sites.

This survey of adults was conducted in order to compare adult experiences on social networking sites to teenagers’ experiences. The Pew Internet Project reported the teen findings in November 2011.1

As a rule, more adults than teens reported positive results on SNS. For instance, a higher proportion of adults than teens say their experience is that people are mostly kind on social networking sites. And significantly smaller proportions of adults have had bad outcomes based on their SNS use such as confrontations, lost friendships, family strife, and fights. Overall, the two surveys show that 41% of SNS-using teens have had at least one of the bad experiences we queried, compared with 26% of the SNS-using adults.

negative outcomes from sns use

When they see mean or aggressive behavior on social networking sites, adults are more likely than teens to ignore it and not get involved.

Compared with teen SNS users, adults are somewhat more likely to stand back, not get involved, and ignore the offensive behavior. For instance, 45% of adult SNS users who have witnessed problems say they frequently ignore offensive behavior online, compared with 35% of SNS-using teens who say they frequently ignore offensive behavior. Some 34% of adult SNS users say they never confront the person being offensive, compared with 21% of SNS-using teens who never take that step. Some 29% of adults who have witnessed problems never defend the person or group being attacked, compared with 19% of teens who never take that action.

At the same time, adults who have seen harassment on SNS are a bit less likely than teens to say they join in the harassment that they see occurring on social networking sites. Some 19% of teen SNS users said they at least occasionally join in the mean and offensive behavior that is being directed at another SNS user, compared with 15% of adults who say they join in at least occasionally.

Interestingly, there is a split when it comes to the behavior of men and women when they see a people acting meanly on a social networking site. Men are more likely to ignore a problem they see on a social networking site and women are more likely to respond.

  • 26% of SNS-using women will frequently tell a person to stop attacking someone on a social networking site, but only 19% of SNS-using men will do that frequently. At the same time, 41% of men say they never tell someone to stop harassing another person on a social networking site, while only 29% of women say they never take action when they see a problem unfolding.
  • Similarly, 28% of SNS-using women say they frequently defend a person or group that is being harassed or insulted, while only 19% say they will frequently do so. At the same time, 33% of SNS-using men say they never defend a person or group that is under attack on a social networking site, compared with 25% of women who say they never defend someone under attack.

Minorities, women, parents, and Millennials are most likely to witness offensive material on social networking sites.

Asked how frequently they see language, images or humor on SNS that is offensive, 73% of SNS-using adults said they encountered such offensive content or language only once in a while or never.  There were several groups, though, that were more likely to encounter such material:

  • 42% of black SNS users said they frequently or sometimes saw language, images or humor on SNS that they found offensive, compared with 22% of white SNS users. In addition, 33% of Hispanic SNS users said they encountered such material that often, notably higher than whites.
  • 34% of Millennial generation SNS users – those ages 18-34 – said they frequently or sometimes saw language, images or humor on SNS that they found offensive, compared with 17% of SNS users in GenX (those ages 35-46). Even smaller percentages of SNS-using Baby Boomers and retirees said they had encountered such material.
  • 29% of women SNS users said they frequently or sometimes saw language, images or humor on SNS that they found offensive, compared with 22% of men.
  • 29% of SNS users who are parents with minor children said they frequently or sometimes saw language, images or humor on SNS that they found offensive, compared with 24% of nonparents.

Cite this publication: Lee Rainie, Amanda Lenhart and Aaron Smith. “The tone of life on social networking sites.” Pew Research Center, Washington, D.C. (February 9, 2012) http://www.pewinternet.org/2012/02/09/the-tone-of-life-on-social-networking-sites/, accessed on July 22, 2014.

  1. See “Teens, kindness and cruelty on social network sites” at http://www.pewinternet.org/Reports/2011/Teens-and-social-media.aspx.