January 9, 2007
New Study Reveals that 55 percent of 12-17s Are in an Online Social Network

According to a report released recently from the Pew Internet Group, available here, 55 percent of teenagers who are online from ages 12 to 17 are a member of an online social network. Not surprisingly, the numbers are higher among older teens than they are among younger children, and there is a stronger use of these sites among girls.

"For girls, social networking sites are primarily places to reinforce pre-existing friendships," a summary of the report stated. "For boys, the networks also provide opportunities for flirting and making new friends." While I think the idea to split these two very different activities along gender lines is a little dubious, I think the report does strike at the two very different functions of these online networks. Back in July, I wrote:

The truth is that MySpace is changing the ways in which people view community--on the one hand, people form virtual communities freed by geographic restraints, based on their own personalities or interests; on the other hand, people who no longer live in an area can stay connected to the people in their hometown or former residence to a degree that's never before been possible.

While these teens may or may not have moved from place-to-place, this division points at the two main drives of a social network--bolstering current relationships and trying to create new ones. The latter is what has been more often touted as the abilities of the Web, with that lonely teen who is trapped in a local culture that makes them an outsider but who finds a vibrant virtual community that doesn't think her or his interests make them a freak. There has increasingly been attention given to those people, though, who go home after school and start writing with other friends.

I think the Pew study is right, from my own anecdotal understanding of social networking, that some boys use social networks just to meet pretty women, and often it is those fake profiles that have a long list of teenage boys professing their love to the woman who doesn't exist. Very sad. The report finds that 29 percent of boys 15-17 use the site to flirt, while 13 percent of girls 15-17 reported doing so.

Of course, you have to think that number could be slightly higher due to the margin of error when asking teens to report on their own behavior rather than viewing it. Some teens may flirt online without admitting so, and the other question not clear by the summary I read of the report is whether these people are flirting with other teens they already know who are already in their social network or flirting with strangers.

On the other hand, and Henry Jenkins and others discussed this in the article about MySpace I wrote this summer in The Greenville Leader-News in Kentucky, teens in these rural areas often use MySpace as a way to connect after school because, especially for those without driver's licenses, these county high schools may have a population of students who live 40 or 45 minutes from each other, meaning that there is no logistical way to "hang out" after going home. MySpace or Facebook becomes the new hangout.

I am sure there are probably slight tendencies for boys to try and use these networks for flirting more than girls and for girls to communicate with existing friends more over these spaces, but I think the gender divide angle covers up some of the universal power of these two different functions of social networks for teens.

According to numbers later in the story, the gender divide is a little exaggerated in the lead, or at least I found it overstated. 60 percent of older boys say they use social networking sites to make new friends, compared to 46 percent of girls, but 91 percent of all teens surveyed who are part of social networks say they use the site to stay in touch with friends they already see regularly, an astounding number. Another 82 percent say they also use the site to stay in touch with friends they rarely see in person. 49 percent of teens use the site to make new friends, while 72 percent use the site to make plans with local friends.

I think that 82 percent will find those activities increasing after they graduate high school and move to college. For instance, we recently talked about having our five-year class reunion, and I found that most of the people I asked said they really had no reason to get together in five years because they used sites like MySpace and Facebook to stay in touch with anyone they really wanted to keep up with, anyway.

The study, which comes out of the Pew Internet & American Life Project, was conducted by a national sample of 935 teenagers 12-17, from late-October to mid-November by telephone, finding that 2/3 of teens reported that their profile is not completely publicly visible, with privacy perhaps extended only to people they choose to befriend. 48 percent of teens report that they visit their social network on a daily basis, with 22 percent using the site multiple times a day. The survey results also find that 70 percent of girls 15-17 have used a social network, as compared to 54 percent of older boys.

"There is a widespread notion that every American teenager is using social networks, and that they're plastering personal information over their profiles for anyone and everyone to read," says Amanda Lenhart, one of the principal researchers for the project. "These findings add nuance to that story - not every teenager is using a
social networking website, and of those that do, more than half of them have in some way restricted access to their profile."

Yet what about DOPA? Don't we need to get social networks out of the hands of these kids? Aren't they all risking their lives on a daily basis just by participating in these online networking sites??

Let's return from the quote I used last week from a New York Times story: "A spokesperson for WiredSafety says, 'The only thing you get from the combination of Web cams and young people are problems. Web cams are a magnet for sexual predators.'"

I know Web cams aren't the same thing as social networks and realize there are more serious problems involved, but isn't this the dividing line between people worrying about children's safety and a style of apocalytpic language that dismisses any positive benefits to these technologies at all? The reality of how teens are using networking technology and how the public rhetoric is shaped around how they use that technology shows a real disconnect.

By the way, in a later post, Parry explains WiredSafety in greater detail in the comments section, pointing out that this quote is not indicative of the work Wired Safety does as a whole. Here, as before, I use this quote not to paint Wired Safety in a particular light but to examine how our language has gone to such extremes in the political realm, so that we say things like "no good" can become of webcams, when that is obviously an exaggeration.

Parry offers a much more nuanced take on it in those comments.