A New Look at Teens and Online Behavior
If it seems like just about every teenager living in the United States is on the Internet, that’s because nearly every one of them is. An astounding 95% of teens aged 12-17 are now online, and over 80% of those teens are using social networking sites like Facebook, Tumblr or MySpace.
These figures, while not all that surprising, are just the start of a new report from the Pew Internet and American Life Project, examining young people’s behavior online. Titled “Teens, Kindness and Cruelty on Social Network Sites” the report’s authors explore not just where teens are spending their time on the web, but how they’re interacting with each other. The short answer: probably in much the same ways they interact in real life.
“Teens will always be teens, life will always be full of conflict,” says Pew senior researcher Mary Madden, a report co-author. “As in the case in offline life, those that behave badly in social media tend to draw attention to themselves. We weren’t sure how pervasive this negative behavior might be.”
The report finds that 69% of teens see their peers online as mostly kind; a clear majority, but lower than adults (85%.) Why the difference? It may have something to do with the sorts of behavior people are seeing online.
In a near reversal of those numbers, 88% of teens using social networks have seen someone being mean or cruel to someone else online – what’s sometimes called “cyber-bullying.” That compares with only 69% of adults who have witnesses the same thing. Further, 15% of teens say they have been victims of bullying online, while 21% admit to joining the mean behavior. In a real world comparison, about 19% say they’ve been bullied off-line. Report author Mary Madden:
“We found that instances of bullying are more commonly reported off line, and this is consistent with a lot of other research in this field. It’s important to note that not all kids report the harassment they’re experiencing as bullying, but when we ask about bullying specifically, only about 8% have experienced this somewhere online.”
Researchers were also interested in how teens respond to bad online behavior. Of those teens who had seen online bullying, nearly all (95%) saw that others just ignored it. But 84% of those teens also report seeing someone defend the victim, or tell the harasser to stop.
In focus groups conducted for the report, teens talked openly about some of those behaviors:
- MIDDLE SCHOOL GIRL: That’s what a lot of people do. Like, they won’t say it to your face, but they will write it online…
- MIDDLE SCHOOL BOY: I know people who, in person, like refuse to swear. And online, it’s every other word.
- MIDDLE SCHOOL GIRL: I think people get – like when they get on Facebook, they get ruthless, stuff like that. …They act different in school and stuff like that, but when they get online, they like a totally different person. You get a lot of confidence.
- HIGH SCHOOL BOY: [There’s] this real quiet girl who go to my school, right, but when she’s on Facebook she talks like some wild – like, be rapping and talking about who she knew and some more stuff and you would, like, never think that’s her. You would think that’s somebody else …
Madden also found that when teens saw bad behavior online, a clear majority first turned to their parents for general guidance, and their peers for specific suggestions. “Parents matter, but peers are an important second,” says Madden. “But we also hear that teens, 8 in 10, say they’re standing up for their peers, and still find these places where they can get support from their friends.”
As with any study, there are areas of uncertainty. Teens may be less willing to admit to bad behavior they’ve actually seen or participated in online. Some of the abuse may take place in private, as in messaging, and remain hidden outside the normal public view. And teens – or adults for that matter – may have different definitions of what constitutes cyber-bullying, says Madden:
“Do they know what it looks like? Not necessarily, and there are other labels that can be assigned that may be more productive for teens to talk about these issues. Drama, for example, was a word that teens used repeatedly when describing their peers behavior online.”
In general, researcher Mary Madden emphasizes that the web is still seen as a generally positive and supportive area by clear majorities of teens and adults. But, as in real life, teens’ digital lives will occasionally be rocky.
The full report is available online, for those wanting to dive down deeper into the data. One question unanswered by the researchers: are those teens that misbehave in the real world the same who engage in cyber-bullying, and are those who stand up for others online those that do so in the real world?
But that’s for another study.