Adults need to take what they see in teen social-networking profiles with a grain of salt. Case in point:
Six UK newspapers ran a story about a teenager's "wild party" that her mother said never happened. It was a bit of fiction lifted from the girl's Bebo profile. First there was an invite sent out promising "the party of the year" for her 16th birthday, CNET reports. "Subsequent posts on Jodie Hudson's Bebo account spoke of underage drinking, sex acts, and violence that occurred at the celebration." The papers said 400 teens showed up and, encountering the ensuing "chaos," Jodie's mother "punched her in the face out of anger." Amanda Hudson wrote the newspapers that there was no underage drinking, no sex, no violence, and no stealing, despite what her daughter posted in Bebo. She's "suing for defamation and breach of privacy." In its coverage, The Independent cited legal experts as saying "the case may be a legal landmark because there is no precedent in disputes involving third parties who use or publish information from social-networking sites."
The case is also a perfectly timed illustration of a point London School of Economics Prof. Sonia Livingstone makes in her latest study, "Taking risky opportunities in youthful content creation: teenagers’ use of social-networking sites for intimacy, privacy and self-expression" in New Media & Society (June 208).
"It should not be assumed that profiles are simply read as information about an individual," the social psychology professor suggests. Referring to one of her research subjects, Livingstone writes: "Jenny, like others, is well aware that people’s profiles can be 'just a front.' For several of the participants, it seemed that position in the peer network was more significant than the personal information provided, rendering the profile a place-marker more than a self portrait."
Some teens have several profiles on various social sites, some with the peer group more on display than the profile owner. All in all, though, the profiles of the social networkers in her study apparently were more about the individual in relation to his or her group of friends than about the group itself. That blend of individual and group is key and what seems to drive the information that appears in the profile (photos, invites, comments, favorite whatevers). So great care goes into what is made private (to friends only) and what is made public, and – Livingstone indicates later in her analysis – the sites' severely limited choices where privacy's concerned (public or private) is a problem for young people wanting to display more gradations. "Teenagers must and do disclose personal information in order to sustain intimacy [as in sharing innermost thoughts or passwords]," Livingstone writes, but they wish to be in control of how they manage this disclosure."
One final observation I found fascinating, in response to what many adults are thinking these days (and which I'm adding here because the article costs $15 to download): Livingstone writes that "although it indeed appears that, for many young people, social networking is 'all about me, me, me,' this need not imply narcissistic self-absorption. Rather, following Mead’s (1934) fundamental distinction between the 'I' and the 'me' as twin aspects of the self, social networking is about 'me' in the sense that it reveals the self embedded in the peer group, as known to and represented by others, rather than the private 'I' known best by oneself."
My takeaway: There's no reason to overreact to a superficial surf through a bunch of social-networking profiles – even those of our own kids' peers. In many ways their profile fabrications are good. They're…
* Protective – only real-life friends, not creeps, know what is and isn't true, which means strangers who try to contact them have zero credibility and usually get ignored.
* A safe way to explore identity and social relating, which is part of adolescent development
* A creative outlet with instant audience (mostly their friends and creative collaborators), something aspiring writers of the past could only dream about – see the last sentence of this item on the California-based Digital Youth research project.
Readers: Dr. Livingstone told me she'll send a pdf copy of her article to anyone interested. If you are, drop me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org, and I'll pass your request along to her.
* Skewing a little younger: Note how 10-year-old Clementine creates and plays with fictional identities in various sites and worlds online, as told by her mother, New York Times columnist Michelle Slatalla in "Today, I think I'll be Hippohead" ("as of last month, more than 100 new virtual worlds had started up or were in development," Michelle reports).
* The social sites teens use: In the UK, "Facebook dominates UK social networking with 45.29% of the market, almost double the share of second-placed Bebo and three times more than MySpace, as micro blogging site Twitter shows major growth," UK-based BrandRepublic.com reports.
* "Just because they crave attention?"
* Some US police don't take SN profiles at face value – see this on how some "gang members" in MySpace are just wannabes acting out.