Adolescents and Facebook

Up to 90% of adolescents use one or more of the social networking sites – Bebo, My Space or Facebook are examples – and that’s a lot of young people socialising with a computer screen. So it’s not surprising that parents are asking whether their children’s social development is being compromised by having virtual friendships rather than real ones; whether they are missing out on important social opportunities by restricting themselves to online socialising; and whether they are exposing themselves to danger.

There seems to be a perception that adolescents use these sites primarily to make new friends – this isn’t backed up by the research. Therefore, it isn’t that teenagers are having virtual friendships in place of real friendships – they are simply using the online medium as well as face-to-face encounters to build their social networks. Without doubt, the vast majority of people use social networking sites to find out more about people who they have met offline, and interest in strangers is unusual.

While the media love to report dreadful stories of young people meeting up with predators they have met online, the incidence of this is extremely rare. Teenagers keep up to date with their friends’ relationship status, whereabouts, and activities and interests, build their social identities in very visual ways by describing themselves in their profiles and customising their pages, and share group activities by posting photographs or alerting each other to what’s going on in their world. They share music and film clips, play games, join groups of various kinds, and support their favourite organisations. This is in addition to their face-to-face, email, or telephone contacts with their friends. They also make links with friends of their friends whom they then go on to meet.

For example, one adolescent reported that she met her current boyfriend because he was a friend of her friend. Having linked to his profile via her friend’s webpage, she asked her friend about him. When her friend said her was really nice, the friend organised for them to meet at a gathering of their mutual friends. At least the adolescent had more information about him than if she’d been on an old-fashioned blind date!

Parents who have access to their adolescents’ sites voice concerns about the private information that seems to be shared indiscriminately by their children. What could be happening is that parents haven’t previously been aware of the quality or quantity of information that adolescents share with each other, because it has traditionally happened in private. However, there is lots of research showing that adolescents have always shared a tremendous amount of personal information with their friends – probably far more than their parents realised. In addition, surveyed adolescents are quite clear that they are aware of privacy issues.

For example, one 16-year old teenager said, “I don’t give stuff away that I’m not willing to share”. Adolescents report that they are in control of what they share online – they use more private communications (e.g. MSN, email or txting) when they want to disclose more private information. One teenager said, “…[MySpace] is good for making arrangements and stuff, but it’s not good if you want a proper chat”.

However, there is no doubt that teenagers (particularly the younger ones) do not comprehend the availability of their personal information to their peers (imagine the school bully knowing some of the things you’ve posted!) or adults (imagine the school principal seeing some of your postings!). Some research shows that they are hard-pressed to describe the privacy features on Facebook, much less use them. Therefore, it is probably sensible for parents to educate their adolescents about using social networking sites effectively and wisely. For their own education, parents can go to this website.


Comments are closed.