Kids, kindness and cruelty online

Have you heard the story about the girl who Skyped with a close friend while she went to the bathroom, only to find the video posted online? Or the teen who (somewhat inexplicably) updated her status to say she’d gotten her period for the first time, and though she quickly regretted it and took it down, realized news had circulated like wildfire? Or the boy who texted some friends about an impromptu party at his house when his parents went out of town, and had hundreds of kids he didn’t know turn up and trash the house?

Stories like these have become Internet lore, the kind of urban legends (true or not) that illustrate our concerns about how new media technologies can magnify the fallout of typical teenage naiveté.

But is our re-telling of these stories gossip? Cautionary tales for our kids and other parents? Or do they function like modern-day ghost stories, keeping the bogeyman at bay through ritual repetition? It’s important to know whether these stories are simply reflections of our own anxieties at something new, or if they reflect a new reality for teens that is actually more dangerous because of the Internet?

A new report prepared by the Pew Internet & American Life Project suggests that being a teenager in an age of social media might not actually be dramatically different from what it used to be back in the dark ages before Facebook (which only opened to the public outside of colleges in 2006).

The report, entitled “Teens, Kindness and Cruelty on Social Network Sites: How American teens navigate the new world of ‘digital citizenship,'” is based on interviews with 799 American teens from all backgrounds. The findings show that although negative interactions and occurrences are not uncommon online, that majority of teens report generally positive interactions. It does seem to suggest what experts have been saying for some time: parents have to be actively involved in what their kids are doing on the Internet.

Some key findings:

  • 69% of teens say that kids their age are mostly kind to one another on social media sites (compared to 85% of adults asked the same question)
  • 20% of teens say that kids their age are mostly unkind to each other on social media, while 11% said “it depends” (compared to 5% of adults who believe their peers are unkind).
  • 88% of teens report having seen people being cruel to one another (compared to 69% of adults). 12% said they saw cruel behavior “frequently,” 29% say they saw cruelty towards others “sometimes,” and 47% say they saw that behavior only “once in a while.”
  • 15% of teens say they themselves have been the target of harassment online in the past 12 months; 13% of adults also said this was the case.
  • Many more teens reported positive outcomes from using social media (78%) than negative ones (41%).
  • 65% of teens have had an experience on a social media network that made them feel good about themselves; 58% have had an experience online that made them feel closer to another person.
  • 25% of teens have had a face-to-face argument or confrontation with another person
  • 22% have had an experience online that ended a friendship
  • 13% had an experience online that caused problems with their parents
  • 13% of teens had an experience online that made them feel nervous about school the next day
  • 8% got into a physical fight with someone because of something that happened online; 6% got into trouble at school.

When it comes to bullying, it seems that the resources of technology are yet one more tool in a varied arsenal designed to torment others.

  • 19% of teens say they were bullied in some way over the past 12 months, usually in multiple ways
  • 12% report being bullied in person
  • 9% report being bullied by text messages
  • 8% experienced some form of online bullying, whether by email, through a social media site or instant messaging.
  • Girls are much more likely than boys to have been bullied in various ways, except for in-person bullying, which happened to both sexes equally.
  • 95% of kids who have witnessed cruel behavior online have witnessed others ignoring it, but 84% have also seen others defend the person being harassed or ask for the behavior to stop.
  • 67% of teens who’ve seen people harassed online have witnessed others joining in the harassment; 21% have admitted they themselves joined in.
  • 53% of those who sought out help and advice regarding cruelty online went to a friend; 36% went to a parent

What role do parents play in their kids’ use of the Internet?

  • 86% of those online say they have received general advice about responsible use of the Internet from their parents
  • 58% of teens say their parents are their biggest influence on what they think is appropriate behavior on the Internet or using a cellphone; 18% say their friends are their biggest influence; 18% say “no one” is an influence
  • Younger girls aged 12-13 say they are much more likely to rely on the advice of a friend than a parent regarding the Internet
  • 39% of all parents have “friended” their kids on social media sites; of parents who were already online, 45% report “friending” their kids

When it comes to thinking about the potential ramifications of what they post before hitting the Send button, not all teens are thinking ahead:

  • 55% of teens say they have decided against posting something because they say it might reflect badly on them in the future
  • Older teens (14-17) were more likely to think this than younger teens (12-13) – 59% vs 46%
  • 67% of 17-year-olds say they think about the consequences before posting things online.

To read more of their findings and for full discussion of their methodology and results, click here. To hear a really interesting interview on CBC Radio’s Spark with  Amanda Lenhart, Pew Internet’s lead researcher on this project, click here.

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