cruel

Mean teens online: Most ignore them or defend victim - study

Nov. 9, 2011 at 12:01 AM ET

Pew Research Center's Internet & American Life Project /
The responses from teens ages 12 to 19 when they were asked about how people usually acted online.

More than two-thirds of teens who use social networking sites say their peers are mostly kind to one another in the remarks they make on such sites. But 88 percent say they have seen examples of mean and cruel behavior to others, and 15 percent say they themselves have been the target of such behavior.

When awful things are said about another person on a site such as Facebook, 90 percent of teens say they ignore the remarks; 80 percent say they personally defend a victim; and 79 percent say they have told the perpetrator to stop his or her mean behavior on the site.

About one in five, or 21 percent, admit they have joined in such harassment on a social network site.

The findings are from a new report, "Teens, Kindness and Cruelty on Social Network Sites" from the Pew Research Center’s Internet & American Life Project, in partnership with the Family Online Safety Institute and with the support of Cable in the Classroom.

“Social networking sites have created new spaces for teens to interact and they witness a mixture of altruism and cruelty on those sites,” said Amanda Lenhart, the report's lead author, in a statement. “For most teens, these are exciting and rewarding spaces. But the majority have also seen a darker side. And for a subset of teens, the world of social media isn’t a pretty place because it presents a climate of drama and mean behavior.”

And it is a familiar climate; Pew says 95 percent of American teens ages 12 to 17 are online; 80 percent of online teens use social media sites like Facebook, MySpace and Twitter compared to 55 percent five years ago.

Facebook, not surprisingly, is the "dominant" social media site, with 93 percent of teen social media users having a Facebook account; 24 percent have a MySpace account, and 12 percent, a Twitter account. Others use these sites:

  • Yahoo, 7 percent
  • YouTube, 6 percent
  • Skype, myYearbook and Tumblr; 2 percent each
  • Google, 1 percent

While social network sites prohibit children under the age of 13 as users, it's a laughable prohibition, as another recent study found.

Pew says that 45 percent of online 12-year-olds use social networking sites; 44 percent of online teens "admit to lying about their age at one time or another so they could access a website or sign up for an online account."

The good and the bad

While 78 percent of the teens say their social media interactions are positive — making them feel good about themselves or getting to be better friends with another person — 41 percent say they have experienced at least one "negative outcome:"

  • 25 percent say they had an experience "that resulted in a face-to-face argument or confrontation with someone."
  • 22 percent had an experience that "ended their friendship with someone."
  • 13 percent had an experience that "caused a problem with their parents."
  • 13 percent "felt nervous about going to school the next day because of an experience on a social network site."
  • 8 percent "got into a physical fight with someone else because of something that happened on a social network site."
  • 6 percent "got in trouble at school because of an experience on a social network site."

"Many teens told us that they just felt like different people on these sites and thought that people they see online often act very differently on social media from how they act in person and at school," said Pew.

One middle-school girl said, "That's what a lot of people do. Like, they won’t say it to your face, but they will write it online," and a middle-school boy said he knows people who "in person, like refuse to swear. And online, it’s every other word."

Pew Research Center's Internet & American Life Project /
Teens' responses when asked about how they thought people should act online.

Middle-school girls seem most vulnerable to situations that could escalate from the virtual world to the real one, Pew said.

"For some teens we spoke with ... fights and drama on social media flowed back and forth between school, the street, and Facebook, often resulting in physical fights."

Said one middle-school girl: "Like that’s how most people start fighting because that’s how most of the fights in my school happen — because of some Facebook stuff, because of something you post, or like because somebody didn’t like your pictures."

Pew's research is based on telephone interviews with a nationally representative sample of 799 teens ages 12 to 17 years old and their parents, from April 19 to July 14; a survey of 2,260 adults, done July 25 through Aug. 26;and seven focus groups with 57 teens between the ages of 12 and 19 in the greater Washington, D.C. metro area in January and February.

Sharing passwords, 'friending' parents

Among the study's other findings:

  • 30 percent of online teens report "sharing one of their passwords with a friend, boyfriend, or girlfriend. While passwords may be guarded closely by some youth, password sharing among peers can be a sign of trust and intimacy. ....Password sharing is especially common among users of social network sites; 33 percent of all teen social network site users say they have shared a password with a friend or significant other, compared with 19 percent of teen Internet users who don’t use social network sites."
  • 55 percent of online teens are getting the message that what they put on Facebook or MySpace could come back to haunt them later, and say they have "decided not to post something online out of concern that it might reflect poorly on them in the future."
  • 62 percent of teens with a social media profile that they use most often set it to be private "so that only their friends can see the content they post," and 19 percent say their profile is "partially private so that friends of friends or their networks can see some version of their profile. Just 17 percent say their profile is set to public so that everyone can see it."
  • Two-thirds of parents of online teens "have checked to see what information was available online about their child. More than six in ten teens report that they know their parents have checked their social media profile, and 41 percent of parents of online teens have friended their child on a social network site."
  • "Friending" your child may have "some protective effects, but it is not without its costs, too," Pew says. "Teens whose parents report that they are friends with their child on social network sites are more likely than teens who aren’t friends with their parents to say that they had a problem with their parents because of an experience on social media (18 percent vs. 5 percent)."

“When a child accepts a parent’s friend request, it doesn’t necessarily mean that the parent has a backstage pass to their child’s social life,” said report co-author Mary Madden, in a statement. “Teens can present a limited profile to certain friends and are active users of private messaging channels, so the content that parents see may represent just a small fraction of the activity on their teen’s profile.”

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