Major update from Pew on teens’ privacy practices in social media

Contrary to how they’re typically represented in the news media, “few teens embrace a fully public approach to social media,” Pew Internet reports in a major new study, “Teens, Social Media and Privacy.” Yes, they share more about themselves than we did as teens (publicly, anyway), but “they take an array of steps to restrict and prune their profiles.”

From Pew Internet Project's May 2013 study, "Teens, Social Media and Privacy"

From Pew Internet Project’s May 2013 study, “Teens, Social Media and Privacy”

Pew turned up a lot of intelligence on teens’ part, where safety, privacy and reputation management are concerned, bearing out findings in Canada last fall. Here are some key findings of this important research, Pew’s first in-depth look at teens’ online privacy since 2007:

  • “The frequency of teen social media usage may have reached a plateau” – the number of teens social media users who check their pages “‘several times a day’ hasn’t changed in any significant way since 2011,” Pew says.
  • Teens’ Twitter use is up significantly, from 16% of US 12-to-17-year-olds in 2011 to nearly a quarter (24%) now, and African American teens use Twitter significantly more than white teens – 39% vs. 23%, respectively.
  • “The typical (median) teen Facebook user has 300 friends, while the typical teen Twitter user has 79 followers” (and Pew found that teens “don’t always think of Twitter as a social networking site,” though the authors didn’t say what they do think Twitter is).
  • Online mirrors offline: “Teens’ Facebook friendship networks largely mirror their offline networks” (which should further reduce the speculative “stranger danger” fears of the previous decade and its national task forces [see this]). “Unwanted contact from strangers is relatively uncommon, but 17% of online teens report some kind of contact that made them feel scared or uncomfortable,” Pew said, adding in a footnote, thought that its question did not reference sexual solicitations, so respondents could’ve been referring to a wide array of concerning behaviors or interactions.
  • A whopping 70% of teen Facebook users say they’re friends with their parents on FB, and 91% of teen Facebook users are friends with members of their extended family.
  • Their use of Facebook is “waning.”
  • We knew this, but it’s important confirmation: “60% of teen Facebook users keep their profiles private [note that Pew's not just saying that 60% use privacy settings], and most report high levels of confidence in their ability to manage their settings.” On Twitter, thought, nearly two-thirds (64%) of teens tweet publicly, which is typical for adult Twitter users too.
  • “Teens take other steps to shape their reputation, manage their networks, and mask information 
they don’t want others to know: 74% of teen social media users have deleted people from their 
network or friends list”; 58% “share inside jokes or cloak their messages in some way” (see this about “social steganography” from researcher danah boyd); 26% post false information like a fake name, age, or location to help protect their privacy (see this about “fictionalizing profiles” as a safety measure).
  • Teens with larger friend networks on Facebook also use more social apps and services other than Facebook. They also share more information and media while at the same time show more care with “profile pruning” and reputation management.
  • Teens’ concern about advertisers’ access to their information is low: “just 9% say they are ‘very’ concerned”; 40% are somewhat *or* very concerned, while 81% of parents are somewhat or very concerned about this for their children. Pew adds that “teens who are concerned about third-party access to their personal information are also more likely to engage in online reputation management.”

So let’s zoom in on the reasons teens interviewed in focus groups gave Pew for why they’re using Facebook less and consider some takeaways:

  1. “The increase in adult presence”: The takeaway we might consider is that trying to monitor teens’ activities by setting up an account in every online service and app they use in a kind of whack-a-mole approach to tech parenting won’t ultimately keep parents abreast of their kids’ digital activities for the simple reason that the more we monitor, the more likely they are to move on. It’ll get harder and harder, too, because they aren’t moving on to a single new service (the way in the last decade Facebook replace MySpace as the No. 1 social network site). Today, digital socializing is expanding and diversifying because it’s now on the mobile platform at least as much as the Web. It looks like digital monitoring and “parental controls” are being replaced by good old-fashioned communication between parent and child about how they use digital devices and spaces (we ConnectSafely folk offer discussion points in two of those spaces with our new parents’ guides to Snapchat and Instagram).
  2. People sharing excessively”: Note how smart Pew’s respondents are to find that annoying! What this indicates is that protective social norms are developing – teens are viewing it less and less socially acceptable to overshare. Adults might find it comforting to see this; it’s online safety in action at the grassroots level. And I hope parents will increasingly understand and acknowledge the protective power of social norms among young people every bit as much as among adults.
  3. “Stressful ‘drama’”: This is one reason why, in other reports, young people are saying they’re moving to Snapchat and other perishable media services: drama avoidance (see this). If the photos and videos vanish in 10 seconds or less, there’s no chance posturing (or “posing”), no self-presentation, “claiming,” or grandstanding. Drama can’t build. Sharing becomes just fun, spontaneous and, well, gone in a few seconds. What a relief, huh? Drama can’t build (or at least drama queens and kings have to work a lot harder), people can let down their guard a little (a little), and reputation management becomes a little less of an issue.

“One of the most striking themes that surfaced through the Berkman focus groups this spring,” the authors write (referring to their co-authors at Harvard University’s Berkman Center for Internet & Society), “was the sense of a social burden teens associated with Facebook. While Facebook is still deeply integrated in teens’ everyday lives, it is sometimes seen as a utility and an obligation rather than an exciting new platform that teens can claim as their own.” Thus their growing interest in the mobile platform. Facebook and its Instagram app are mobile, too, but so are hundreds of thousands of other apps offering at least thousands of different uses. Teens’ digital social activities, from the friendship-driven to the interest-driven kinds*, are diversifying and segmenting. That makes for fascinating conversations with our children and their peers. Seriously, there is so much to learn about them now in kinder, more respectful, less intrusive ways than through impersonal monitoring software and “parental controls.”

*For more on friendship- and interest-driven social networking, see the 2010 MIT Press book Hanging Out, Messing Around and Geeking Out (pdf).

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