May 21, 2013

Teens, Social Media, and Privacy

Teens are sharing more details about themselves on social media profiles, but few do so publicly; 60% of teen Facebook users keep their profiles private   

Teen social media users do not express a high level of concern about third-party access to their data;  just 9% say they are “very” concerned  

Teen Twitter use has grown significantly: 24% of online teens use Twitter, up from 16% in 2011.  

WASHINGTON – (May 21, 2013) – Teens are sharing more information about themselves on social media sites than they have in the past, but they are also taking a variety of technical and non-technical steps to manage the privacy of that information. Despite taking these privacy-protective actions, teen social media users do not express a high level of concern about third-parties (such as businesses or advertisers) accessing their data; just 9% say they are “very” concerned.

These are among the new findings from a nationally representative Pew Research Center survey of 802 youth ages 12-17 and their parents that explored technology use. Key findings include:

Teens are sharing more information about themselves on their social media profiles than they did when we last surveyed in 2006:

  • 91% post a photo of themselves, up from 79% in 2006.
  • 71% post their school name, up from 49%.
  • 71% post the city or town where they live, up from 61%.
  • 53% post their email address, up from 29%.
  • 20% post their cell phone number, up from 2%.

60% of teen Facebook users set their Facebook profiles to private (friends only), and most report high levels of confidence in their ability to manage their settings.

  • 56% of teen Facebook users say it’s “not difficult at all” to manage the privacy controls on their Facebook profile.
  • 33% Facebook-using teens say it’s “not too difficult.”
  • 8% of teen Facebook users say that managing their privacy controls is “somewhat difficult,” while less than 1% describe the process as “very difficult.”

Teens take other steps to shape their reputation, manage their networks, and mask information they don’t want others to see.

  • 59% have deleted or edited something that they posted in the past.
  • 53% have deleted comments from others on their profile or account.
  • 45% have removed their name from photos that have been tagged to identify them.
  • 31% have deleted or deactivated an entire profile or account.
  • Focus group participants report that they are able to manage their privacy on social media sites, usually by deciding what content to post rather than by managing its dissemination via privacy settings.

Teen social media users do not express a high level of concern about third-party access to their data. Focus group findings suggest teens have mixed feelings about advertising practices, ranging from ignorance, indifference, to annoyance. Some teens may not realize how their personal information is being used by third parties. Others see them as necessary to provide the service or even as welcomed content about brands they like. Some teens are annoyed by ads and find them “creepy” when they are targeted and highly personalized.

“Far from being privacy indifferent, today’s teens are mindful about what they post, even if their primary focus and motivation is often their engagement with an audience of friends and family, rather than how their online behavior might be tracked by advertisers or other third parties,” said Mary Madden, Senior Researcher for the Pew Research Center’s Internet Project and co-author of the report.

While Facebook remains the most commonly used social media site, teen Twitter use has grown significantly: One in four (24%) online teens uses Twitter, up from 16% in 2011. But even as nearly eight in ten online teens have Facebook profiles, teen users report mixed feelings about it. The typical (median) teen Facebook user has 300 friends, while the typical teen Twitter user has 79 followers.  And 64% of teens with Twitter accounts say that their tweets are public, while 24% say their tweets are private.

“Our focus group findings revealed complex and often negative feelings about Facebook interactions,” said Sandra Cortesi, Director of the Youth and Media Project at the Berkman Center and a contributor to this report. “Many teens longed for some online place that was free of ‘drama,’ and complex audience management requirements. Instead, some are turning to Instagram, Twitter and Snapchat to avoid these difficult peer dynamics.”

Teens with larger Facebook networks are more frequent users of social media sites and tend to have a greater variety of people in their friend networks—such as teachers, coaches, celebrities and other non-famous people they have never met in person. They also share a wider range of information on their profile when compared with those who have a smaller number of friends on the site. Yet even as they share more information with a wider range of people, they are also more actively engaged in maintaining their online profile or persona.

Teens with more than 600 Facebook friends are more than three times as likely to also have a Twitter account when compared with those who have 150 or fewer Facebook friends (46% vs. 13%). They are six times as likely to use Instagram (12% vs. 2%).

“Teens with larger Facebook networks visit the site more often, share more information about themselves and are friends with a greater variety of people,” said Amanda Lenhart, Senior Researcher, Director of Teens and Technology at the Pew Research Center and a co-author of the report. “But these large networks are also associated with greater engagement in reputation management activities, and these youth are more likely to be spreading their social media energies across a broader portfolio of social media sites.”

The complete findings of the study are detailed in a new report called, “Teens, Social Media and Privacy” that is the result of a collaboration between the Pew Internet Project and the Berkman Center for Internet & Society at Harvard University. The data are based on a nationally representative phone survey of 802 parents and their 802 teens ages 12-17, conducted between July 26 and September 30, 2012. Interviews were conducted in English and Spanish and on landline and cell phones. The margin of error for the full sample is ± 4.5 percentage points. 

This report includes insights and quotes from 24 in-person focus groups conducted by the Youth and Media team at the Berkman Center for Internet & Society at Harvard University beginning in February 2013. The team interviewed 156 students across the greater Boston area, Los Angeles (California), Santa Barbara (California), and Greensboro (North Carolina). Participants ranged in age from 11 to 19. The mean age of participants is 14.5. Although the research sample was not designed to constitute representative cross-sections of particular population(s), the sample includes participants from diverse ethnic, racial, and economic backgrounds.

In addition, two online focus groups of teenagers ages 12-17 were conducted by the Pew Internet Project from June 20-27, 2012 to help inform the survey design. The first focus group was with 11 middle schoolers ages 12-14, and the second group was with nine high schoolers ages 14-17. Each group was mixed gender, with some racial, socio-economic, and regional diversity. All references to these findings are referred to as “online focus groups” throughout the report.

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

Pew Research Center is a nonpartisan source of data and analysis. It does not take advocacy positions. Its Internet & American Life project produces reports that analyze the social 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.

About the Berkman Center for Internet & Society

The Berkman Center for Internet & Society at Harvard University is a research program founded to recognize, study, and engage the most difficult problems of the digital age and to share in their resolution in ways that advance the public interest. Founded in 1997, through a generous gift from Jack N. and Lillian R. Berkman, the Center is home to an ever-growing community of faculty, fellows, staff, and affiliates. Fundamental to its work is the study of the relationship between digital technologies and democratic values, including civic participation, access to knowledge, and the free flow of information. More information can be found at http://cyber.law.harvard.edu.

Media contacts

Mary Madden: mmadden@pewinternet.org and 202-419-4515

Amanda Lenhart: alenhart@pewinternet.org and 202-419-4514