Social media reality check from Canadian youth: Key study

By Anne Collier

Before releasing its report on online conflict, MediaSmarts presented a much broader picture of young Canadians’ experiences in social media: “Life Online.” This is important context for any discussion about cyberbullying and other negative aspects of digitally informed life, whether we’re setting policy at the household, school or national levels.

“There are a lot of assumptions out there about kids online,” wrote Valerie Steeves, PhD, the study’s author, “but the labels we use are often misleading and out of step with what young people are actually doing with networked technologies.” So for a reality check, here are some highlights of the digital lives of Canadians in grades 4-11 in every province and territory:

  • So connected: Just about all (99%) of them can access the Net outside of school. They do so in various ways – but more with laptops or tablets (62%) now than desktop computers (59%), and MP3 players are the way a lot of 4th-through-8th-graders use the Net. Interestingly, 80% of French-speaking Canadian students use portable devices to go online vs. 67% of English-language students.
  • Increasingly mobile: Nearly a quarter of 4th-graders (24%), half of 7th-graders (52%) and 85% of 11th-graders have their own cellphones.
  • Not so participatory: They are “confident and enthusiastic users of networked technology” but more for sociality and information than producing or participating. On the creative side, 38% have posted their own stories or artwork, 33% video or audio, 22% mash-ups, “but only a small number” do this posting regularly. In terms of civic engagement, “less than a third … have posted comments on news sites (38%), 50% have passed on links to people on news stories … and just over a third have joined or supported activist groups online.”
  • Website top picks: There’s huge diversity of interests – respondents “listed more than 3,000 different favourite websites,” with YouTube (75%) at the top for all students. The rest of the Top 10 were Facebook (57%), (31%), Twitter (24%), Tumblr (12%), Instagram (10%), Minecraft (8%), Miniclip (7%), Hotmail (6%) and Wikipedia (5%). [The report focused on “websites” and didn’t seem to distinguish between Web and mobile use of services that are apps as well as site. See pp. 27 and 28 for gender and grade-level breakdowns.]
  • Activity top picks: games (59%), posting on or reading someone else’s page (52%), downloading/streaming media (51%), posting on one’s own page (41%), posting on Twitter (21%), following friends/family on Twitter (21%), following celebrities on Twitter (20%), pranking or trolling someone (20%). [Teens in focus groups used “pranking” and “trolling” to mean “playing tricks or jokes on people” online or on phones, messing with their devices or their heads.
  • “Underage” socializing: Nearly 2/3 of 4th-through-6th-graders have a Facebook account and 16% of them have Twitter accounts.
  • Online safety: Students are generally aware of the potential risks of Net use and confident in their ability to handle them. Feeling safe “grows with age, from a low of 50% in grades 4 and 7 to a high of 66% in grade 11.”
  • Household Internet rules: 84% of students have at least one Net-related rule at home, and those who do are “less likely to engage in activities that adults consider risky.” Interestingly, the percentage of household rules about online activities declined dramatically from 2005 to ’13, “most notably in rules relating to meeting online acquaintances in person (30% fewer students have rules on this) and sites you are not supposed to visit (28% fewer students have rules on this).” [Is that because parents are finding that each is not as big a problem as they thought?] Girls are more likely to have them than boys, so their Net use is more regulated than boys’.
  • Unplugging: To young people’s credit (credit they seldom get), 94% “choose to go offline to do other things like spending more time with friends or family, enjoying some quiet time by themselves or going outside.” On the other hand, 35% of teens with cellphones “sleep with them in case they get calls or messages during the night,” and the percentage increases with age – so 20% of 4th-graders do so and just over half of 11th-graders do. “Although one-third of students worry that they spend too much time online, only half say they would be upset or unhappy if they had to unplug for a week” (except for schoolwork that would require online time).

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