April 18, 2007

Teens, Privacy and Online Social Networks

Friendship, Strangers and Safety in Online Social Networks

One in four online teens make friends on social networks.

Teens use social networks for the creation and the maintenance of friendships. Most teens are using the networks to stay in touch with people they already know, either friends that they see a lot (91% of social networking teens have done this) or friends that they rarely see in person (82%).

Teens also use the online networks to make new friends; 49% of social network users (27% of online teens) say they use the networks to make new friends. Boys are more likely to report using the networks to make new friends than girls. Teens from middle and lower income families were more likely to say that they use the sites to make new friends than higher income teens. A bit more than a third (37%) of teens from households earning more than $75,000 annually said they used social networks to make new friends, compared with 57% of teens from families earning less than $75,000 annually. Children of single parents were also much more likely to use online social networks to find new friends than teens with married parents.

Teens told us in their own words about how they use social network sites to make friends and communicate with people. For some teens it is how they make new friends “I like it. I just like networking, that’s about it,” said one late high school-aged boy. “…my school is pretty big, so if I didn’t know a person I can meet them through MySpace and just see them at school then. That’s how I make friends, I guess.” Another high school boy echoed his sentiments: “When you look at their profile you get to see who they are and see if they might like the same things you like. You might like how they look or something like that.”  And for some teens, high school-aged boys in particular, it is a way to meet and approach potential romantic partners. One high school boy said, “Yes, like if you’re just on there and you’re looking through and you see a good-looking girl on there and she wants to be my friend and you accept!”

For some teens, making friends on social networks is less about finding common ground, and more about avoiding giving offense. One middle school-aged girl told us “My friends will have friends that I don’t know. You look at them…Then you feel bad because they’re like, ‘Oh, well, I just saw you in this play, be my friend.’ And then you’re like, ‘Okay.’ All right, you know, why not.”  Another middle school girl elaborated, “I mean, I’m not really making new friends, I’m just not hurting peoples’ feelings. If I know that they’re friends with someone else that I don’t feel like they’re [going to] come and attack me, and so it’s safe.”

16% of teens are connected to “friends” on social networking sites who they have not met in person.

As the above quotes suggest, some social networking teens report that their online friends are people that they have never met in person.  One in six or 17% of online teens and 31% of social networking teens have “friends” on their social networking profile who they have personally never met. More than two-thirds (69%) of social networking teens say they do not have unmet friends in their network. Older teen boys (ages 15-17) are much more likely than any other group to say that they have friends in their network who they have never met in person. Nearly half of social network-using older teen boys (47%) have friends in their social network who they have never met. For older girls, only 28% report having people they have never met in their networks. About 1 in 3 (29%) of younger boys report having friends they have never met, and just 22% of younger girls say the same.

Some un-met online friends are connected through other friends…

Out of the small group of teens who have friends in their social networks who they have never met in person, many have friends who are in some way connected to an offline friend, and a smaller number have friends in their network who are in no way connected to online or offline friends. 12% of online teens have “friends” on social networking sites whom they have never met, but who have some connection to their offline friends.

“If people I don’t know request to be my friend I’ll add them but I don’t talk to them.  I don’t know why I add them if I don’t talk to them, now that I think about it.  That’s kind of stupid.  It just means they’re on my friends list.  I don’t really get anything out of it.  They can just send me comments.”

– Girl, Late High School

To look at the data another way, 70% of social networking teens with un-met “friends” say some of these people have a connection to their offline friends – people like a chemistry partner’s older sister, or the cousin of a good friend. It also could be that these friends have simply been “friended” by another friend of the social network user, and are in fact, true strangers with no offline connection. There are not statistically significant differences between age groups and girls and boys with these kinds of online friends.

…Others have friends in their social networks that neither they nor their friends have ever met.

A small subset of teens with unmet friends in their social network say that some of these friends have no connection to their online or offline friends. This group represents just 9% of online teens and a bit more than half (53%) of teens with un-met friends. However, the practice of “friending” celebrities, musicians and political candidates in order to be affiliated with them in some way is a popular practice on social networks, and we do not know how many of these profiles account for links to unmet and unknown online “friends.” 

“i have a myspace and a xanga. most of the people i meet online are friends of friends of mine so i know they’re really who they say they are and stuff. i think its really good. i got to know one of my present best friends thanks to myspace.”

– Girl, Late High School

Even though girls are less likely to have friends in their social network whom they have never met, those girls that do have unmet friends are more likely than boys with un-met friends to say that these people have no connection to online or offline acquaintances. Two-thirds (66%) of girls with un-met online friends say that they have social network friends who have no connection to any of their online or offline friends – 42% of boys with un-met friends say that at least some of their social networking friends are totally unconnected with other online or offline friends. Most of the difference between boys and girls comes from the older girls (ages 15-17) in this group, of whom 72% say they have friends online who they have not met who are not connected to other online or offline friends. Just 39% of boys of the same age report these kinds of friends.

“I know when I get a friend request, if I don’t know the person I won’t automatically deny them, I’ll go to their page and see who’s in their top eight and see if I know any of their friends… They’re not like strangers if your good friend knows them, like they are to you, but it’s not like they’re dangerous.”

– Girl, Middle School

32% of online teens have been contacted online by a complete stranger. Profile-owning teens are much more likely to have been contacted.

In some cases teens are contacted online by complete strangers, through social networks or other means of online communication like IM or email or in chat rooms. Out of online teens, nearly a third (32%) have been contacted online by someone who was a complete stranger and who had no connection to any of their friends.

In our first study of teen internet usage in 2000, 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.

In our current study, online girls (39%) and older teens ages 15-17 (41%) were more likely than boys or younger teens to have been contacted online by a stranger. Older girls were the most likely to report some kind of stranger contact, with half (51%) saying that they had been contacted online by someone unknown to them. Only 30% of older boys report similar stranger contact.

Social network-using teens are more likely to have been contacted by a complete stranger than teens who do not use the networks; 43% of teens who use social networks have been contacted by a stranger online, while just 17% of teens who do not use social networks have had that experience. The data is similar for teens with online profiles – 44% of profile owners have been contacted online by a stranger, while just 16% of those with out online profiles have been contacted by someone unknown to them or their friends.

However, as in the offline world, stranger contact can take many forms. An unsolicited spam email message, instant message or comment from a stranger might be cause for alarm and distress or it may simply get deleted or ignored by the teen. And some strangers who contact teens may, in fact, turn out to be like-minded peers in search of friends.

Most teens ignore strangers who contact them online

Most teens ignore or delete stranger contact and are not bothered by it.

Out of all the teens contacted online by strangers, the vast majority of them responded to the most recent occurrence by ignoring or deleting the contact. Nearly two-thirds (65%) of teens who had been contacted by a stranger ignored or deleted the contact. Another 21% of contacted teens responded to the stranger so that they could find out more about the person. Older teens, and particularly older teen boys, were more likely to respond to the stranger contact with requests for more information to assess the level of threat posed by the communication.

“It gets weird.  I think two weeks ago I got a request.  And one of my friends hit approve.  And the person, this guy started sending me weird comments…
And he’s sending me these comments like oh, you’re so hot, where do you live? I want to meet you.
That gets a little weird.”

– Girl, Late High School

Another 8% of teens who were contacted by people unknown to them responded to the most recent contact by responding and telling the author to leave them alone. Just 3% of teens told an adult or someone in authority and another 3% took some other kind of action, including blocking the person from contacting them, or asking the individual to identify themselves with their real name.

While profile-owning and social network-using teens are more likely to have been contacted online by strangers, their behavior in response to the stranger contact is not significantly different from online teens who do not have a profile and who do not use social networks.

“yeah ive had instant messages from random people i didnt know. i was really uncomfortable but usually its a friends friend. and if its not i bs everything about myself or i just ignore them or block them all together.”

– Girl, Late High School


7% of online teens say they have been scared or uncomfortable after being contacted by a stranger online.

Out of all the times online teens have been contacted by strangers, a relatively small percentage of the teens report ever feeling scared or uncomfortable. Teens who have been contacted online by people unknown to them typically say they have not felt scared or uncomfortable because of these contacts. Three-quarters (77%) of teens who have been contacted say they have never felt scared or uncomfortable, compared with 23% of contacted teens who have felt scared or uncomfortable after communication with a stranger. Looking at online teens as a whole, roughly 93% have never had the experience of being contacted online by a stranger in a way that made them feel scared or uncomfortable, while 7% have experienced this.

“My brother got into an online relationship with
a [older] girl.  He told her where he lived and she
moved to [town] the next week.  She would
show up at our house.  She followed me around.
‘Where is your brother?’”

– Girl, Early High School

Girls are more likely than boys to report feeling scared or uncomfortable because of a stranger contact. Of girls who have been contacted online by someone unknown to them, 27% said they felt scared or uncomfortable, while only 15% of boys reported the same feelings. There is no significant difference between age groups in reporting feeling scared or uncomfortable after stranger contact – about one in 4 of teens contacted in either age group reported these feelings. Profile-owning teens are no more likely than their counterparts to feel scared or uncomfortable because of contact from someone they do not know.

Teens feel that they are more accessible to strangers when they are online.

Asked where they thought teens were most likely to be approached by a stranger, the majority of online teens believed that people their age were most likely to be approached by strangers online rather than offline. Nearly three-quarters (73%) of online teens believe that someone their age is most likely to be approached by a someone unknown to them online, while 23% of online teens believe it is more likely to take place offline. Another three percent of teens think it happens with equal frequency online or offline. Teens present a unified front on this question, with little variation between boys, girls, age groups or between teens with online profiles and those without them.

“My cousin met this guy.  He seemed nice.  He said he was 16 and went to a military academy.  He gave my cousin his cell phone number.  I think he did that so he could get hers.  She called him.  He really was 16.  When she called him he got all her information.  He got her phone number and kept on calling her.”

– Girl, Early High Schol

Teens appear to be acting on the awareness that they are more accessible to outside contact when they are online. For the most part, the warnings and concern coming from parents and educators are not falling on deaf ears. While a first name and a photo are standard features of most teenagers’ online profiles, they rarely post personal information such as their full name, home phone number or cell phone number to a public profile. Other research echoes these findings; a recent content analysis study of 1,475 randomly selected MySpace profiles by Criminal Justice professors at Florida Atlantic University and the University of Wisconsin found that a large segment of teens restricted access to their profiles, and of those with public profiles, a small minority included personal information such as a full name or cell phone number.10

Older boys consider themselves to be more accessible and are more likely to make new friends through social networking sites.

While older girls are, in many ways, the power users of social networking sites and have been the primary focus of safety concerns, older boys are the ones who are most likely to use the sites to make new friends. Fully 60% of older boys who use social networking sites say they use them to make new friends, compared with just 46% of older girls, and roughly the same segment of younger boys (44%) and younger girls (48%).

Older boys are also more likely to say it would be “pretty easy” to find out who they are from the information posted to their profile; 36% of older boys with profiles report this, compared with 23% of older girls and smaller segments of younger boys (18%) and younger girls (11%).

Teens who use social networking sites to meet new friends are more accessible to strangers, but are no more likely to have experienced stranger contact that made them scared or uncomfortable.

In general, looking at both boys and girls, teens who say they use social networking sites to make new friends are more likely than the average profile-owning teen to have a publicly viewable profile. These “friending” teens who are deliberately trying to meet new people are also more likely to post photos of themselves, as well as links to their blog on their profile. More of these “friending” teens have unmet friends in their network when compared with the average profile-owning teen, and they are more likely to have been contacted by a stranger online. However, they are no more likely to have experienced a contact that made them scared or uncomfortable.

This suggests several possible implications that might be explored in future research. First, since boys are more likely to use the sites for friending, and are much more likely to have unmet friends in their network, a special analysis of teen girls who actively make new friends on the networks would help to explain the extent to which girls’ negative experiences with stranger contact may or may not be related to networking activity on the sites. Second, those who have had a negative experience with stranger contact online may be more wary of using social networking sites to make friends, and may now make more conservative choices about the information they disclose online as a result of their experiences. As a result, they may have eschewed social networking sites altogether, or simply made the choice to restrict access to their profile. This sample was too small to yield reliable answers to these questions, but future studies that focus on those who have had negative experiences would shed additional light on the privacy choices teens make in different online contexts and in response to different experiences.

  1. See Hinduja and Patchin, “Personal Information of Adolescents on the Internet: A Quantitative Content Analysis of MySpace,” presented to the 2007 Academy of Criminal Justice Sciences Conference in Seattle.