Pew on teen social media practices (with interesting bits on class)

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by: danah boyd

While I was off struggling with Leopard and pants, Pew put out another great report: Teens and Social Media. This report fleshes out what I noticed earlier
– teens are much more protective of the content they post online than
adults are. Yet, this report is sooo much more than that. Here are some of the new findings to whet your appetite:

  • Digital images – stills and videos – have a big role in teen life.
    Posting them often starts a virtual conversation. Most teens receive
    some feedback on the content they post online.
  • Email continues to lose its luster among teens as texting,
    instant messaging, and social networking sites facilitate more frequent
    contact with friends.
  • More older girls than boys create and contribute to websites.
  • Girls have fueled the growth of the teen blogosphere.
  • Teens from lower-income and single-parent households are more likely to blog.
  • Teens who are most active online, including bloggers, are also highly active offline.
  • Most teens restrict access to their posted photos – at least some of the time. Girls are more restrictive photo posters.
  • Content creators are not devoting their lives exclusively
    to virtual participation. They are just as likely as other teens to
    engage in most offline activities and more likely to have jobs.
  • African American teens are more likely to look for college information online.
  • Girls are more likely than boys to look up health, dieting, or fitness information on the Web.
  • The number of teens who report instant message use has dropped since 2004.
  • Visiting a chatroom has declined significantly in popularity since 2000.
  • Fewer teens are buying products online.
  • Wealthy teens are more likely to engage in multimedia Web activities.

Note: The bits on social network sites in the report are using
data collected in late 2005/early 2006. Much of those findings were
reported in an earlier Pew Report. I strongly believe that SNS use is up since then and that 55% is extremely low.

The whole report
is extremely interesting (and I strongly encourage you to read it), but
I want to take a moment to talk about the two statements that I bolded
in the list above. What Pew’s data shows is that online participation
correlates with offline participation. They are not able to show
causality (and they do not try to claim that they can), but such a
correlation still contradicts the ever-present myth that online
activities cause a decline in offline activities. Of course, don’t
misread this correlation in the opposite direction either. In other
words, you cannot say that if you get a group of teens involved online,
they will also get involved offline. Meshing these findings with my own
qualitative observations, I have a sneaking suspicion that what Pew’s
data is pointing to is that the hyper-motivated and/or overly scheduled
teens from middle/upper class communities are extremely engaged offline
and use online technologies to socialize with their friends in the
interstitial times and that this cohort’s content creation is primarily
to support friendships rather than create for creation sake. This also
makes sense because teens who have more free time tend to have less
restrictions and tend to prefer offline encounters with friends to
online ones.

I wasn’t surprised by most of their findings, but one of them did make me raise my eyebrows: Teens from lower-income are more likely to blog.
Because of how Pew collects data, they cannot answer the question
“why?” when they find such correlations, but I figured that my
qualitative data might provide some insight and so I went back through
my data. When asked about blogging, most of my MySpace-dominant users
would immediately talk about the blogs that they kept on MySpace while
my Facebook-dominant teens would talk about how Xanga was “so middle
school” and that “everyone stopped” because “it just felt really weird
writing about my day to people that I didn’t even care about.” And then
it clicked. As I pointed out last summer and Eszter saw in her survey,
the MySpace/Facebook split is correlated with socio-economic status.
Because MySpace supports blogging and Facebook does not and because
many of the teens who were once on Xanga are now using one of the SNSs,
it makes sense that teens from lower-income households are more likely
to blog now. They are blogging on MySpace. Now, that outta be
interesting when these kids hit college where blogging is used as an
educational tool.

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