Engaging with social networking sites
Social networking sites offer people new and varied ways to communicate via the internet, whether through their PC or their mobile phone. Examples include MySpace, Facebook and Bebo. They allow people to easily and simply create their own online page or profile and to construct and display an online network of contacts, often called ‘friends’. Users of these sites can communicate via their profile both with their ‘friends’ and with people outside their list of contacts.
The rapid growth of social networking sites in recent years indicates that they are now a mainstream communications technology for many people.
Social networking sites are most popular with teenagers and young adults
Ofcom research shows that just over one fifth (22%) of adult internet users aged 16+ and almost half (49%) of children aged 8-17 who use the internet have set up their own profile on a social networking site. (-1-). For adults, the likelihood of setting up a profile is highest among 16-24 year olds (54%) and decreases with age. (-2-)
Some under-13s are by-passing the age restrictions on social networking sites
Despite the fact that the minimum age for most major social networking sites is usually 13 (14 on MySpace), 27% of 8-11 year olds who are aware of social networking sites say that they have a profile on a site. While s ome of these younger users are on sites intended for younger children, the presence of underage users on social networking sites intended for those aged 13 or over was also confirmed by qualitative research conducted by Ofcom.
The average adult social networker has profiles on 1.6 sites, and most users check their profile at least every other day
Adult social networkers use a variety of sites, with the main ones being Bebo, Facebook and MySpace. It is common for adults to have a profile on more than one site - on average each adult with a social networking page or profile has profiles on 1.6 sites, and 39% of adults have profiles on two or more sites. Half of all current adult social networkers say that they access their profiles at least every other day.
The site people choose to use varies depending on the user. Children are more likely to use Bebo (63% of those who have a social networking site profile), and the most popular site for adults is Facebook (62% of those who have a social networking profile). There is also a difference between socio-economic groups: ABC1s with a social networking profile were more likely to use Facebook than C2DEs, who were more likely to have a profile on MySpace.
Two-thirds of parents claim to set rules on their child’s use of social networking sites, although only 53% of children said that their parents set such rules
For many children, the rules and restrictions that their parents set on social networking site usage are an important influencing factor in the child’s use of social networking sites. Two-thirds of parents whose children have a social networking page say they set rules on their child’s use of these sites. Most commonly these concerned meeting new people online and giving out personal details. However, significantly fewer children (53% of those with social networking profiles) say that their parents set rules on their use of these sites.
Attitudes and behaviours towards social networking sites
Social networkers fall into distinct groups
Social networkers differ in their attitudes to social networking sites and in their behaviour while using them. Ofcom’s qualitative research indicates that site users tend to fall into five distinct groups based on their behaviours and attitudes. These are as follows:
- Alpha Socialisers (a minority) – people who used sites in intense short bursts to flirt, meet new people, and be entertained.
- Attention Seekers – (some) people who craved attention and comments from others, often by posting photos and customising their profiles.
- Followers – (many) people who joined sites to keep up with what their peers were doing.
- Faithfuls – (many) people who typically used social networking sites to rekindle old friendships, often from school or university.
- Functionals – (a minority) people who tended to be single-minded in using sites for a particular purpose.
Non-users of social networking sites also fall into distinct groups
Non-users also appear to fall into distinct groups; these groups are based on their reasons for not using social networking sites:
- Concerned about safety – people concerned about safety online, in particular making personal details available online.
- Technically inexperienced – people who lack confidence in using the internet and computers.
- Intellectual rejecters – people who have no interest in social networking sites and see them as a waste of time.
How people use social networking sites
Users create well-developed profiles as the basis of their online presence
The qualitative research confirmed the importance of a well-developed profile to people’s use of these sites. Profiles often contain very detailed information about the user, even though it is not compulsory to provide this. Users also enjoy customising their profiles, posting photos, watching video content, playing online games, and in some circumstances, experimenting with aspects of their personalities.
Building a profile in this way enables users to efficiently develop a wide online social network by making the most of the communications opportunities that social networking offers. U sers derive significant enjoyment from the process of building a social network, collecting a list of their friends and using this list of friends to browse others’ profiles.
Users share personal information with a wide range of ‘friends’
Although contact lists on sites talk about ’friends’, social networking sites stretch the traditional meaning of ‘friends’ to mean anyone with whom a user has an online connection. Therefore the term can include people who the user has never actually met or spoken to. Unlike offline (or ‘real world’) friendship, online friendships and connections are also displayed in a public and visible way via friend lists.
The public display of friend lists means that users often share their personal details online with people they may not know at all well. These details include religion, political views, sexuality and date of birth that in the offline world a person might only share only with close friends.
While communication with known contacts was the most popular social networking activity, 17 % of adults used their profile to communicate with people they do not know. This increases among younger adults
Both quantitative and qualitative research showed that communication was the most popular activity on social networking sites. Users communicated mainly with people with whom they had at least some form of pre-existing relationship. Sixty-nine per cent of adults who have a social networking page or profile used social networking sites to talk to friends or family who they saw regularly anyway, compared to 17% of adults who used sites to talk to those they didn’t already know. In particular users of all ages appreciated social networking sites as a means to manage their existing relationships, and particularly for getting back in contact with old friends.
Among those who reported talking to people they didn’t know, there were significant variations in age, but those who talked to people they didn’t know were significantly more likely to be aged 16-24 (22% of those with a social networking page or profile) than 25-34 (7% of those with a profile). In our qualitative sample, several people reported using sites in this way to look for romantic interests.
Only a few users highlighted negative aspects to social networking
The majority of comments in our qualitative sample were positive about social networking. A few users did mention negative aspects to social networking, and these included annoyance at others using sites for self-promotion, parties organised online getting out of hand, and online bullying.
Privacy and safety
From Ofcom’s qualitative research it appears that concerns about privacy and safety are not ‘top of mind’ for most users
The people who use social networking sites see them as a fun and easy leisure activity. Although the subject of much discussion in the media, in Ofcom’s qualitative research privacy and safety issues on social networking sites did not emerge as ‘top of mind’ for most users. In discussion, and after prompting, some users in the qualitative study did think of some privacy and safety issues, although on the whole they were unconcerned about them.
In addition, our qualitative study found that all users, even those who were confident with ICT found the settings on most of the major social networking sites difficult to understand and manipulate.
Several areas of potentially risky behaviour are suggested by the qualitative and/or quantitative research. These include:
- leaving privacy settings as default ‘open’ ( Ofcom Social Networking qualitative research) – 41% of children aged 8-17 who had a visible profile had their profile set so that it was visible to anyone ( Children, young people and online content quantitative research) and 44% of adults who had a current profile said their profile could be seen by anyone (-3-) (this was more likely among those aged 18-24) (Adult Media Literacy Audit 2008);
- giving out sensitive personal information, photographs and other content (Ofcom social networking sites research/Get Safe Online Report 2007). Our qualitative research found that some users willingly gave out sensitive personal information. This was supported by the Get Safe Online research which found that 25% of registered social networking users had posted sensitive personal data about themselves on their profiles. This included details such as their phone number, home address or email address. Younger adults are even more likely to do this, with 34% of 16-24 year olds willingly posting this information;
- posting content (especially photos) that could be reputationally damaging ( Ofcom Social Networking qualitative research) . Examples ranged from posting provocative photos to photographs of teachers drinking and smoking being seen by their pupils and pupils’ parents; and
- contacting people they didn’t know (and/or didn’t know well) online/accepting people they didn’t know as ‘friends’ (Ofcom Social Networking qualitative research) – 17% of adult users said they talked to people on social networking sites that they didn’t know and 35% spoke to people who were “friends of friends” (Adult Media Literacy Audit 2008).
Our qualitative research indicates that some people are more likely than others to engage in potentially risky behaviour. This suggests that communications about the implications of potentially risky behaviour may need to be looked at in different ways for different groups of people.
Our qualitative research also showed that on the whole users appeared unconcerned about these risks. There are several reasons for this, which include, in no particular order:
- a lack of awareness of the issues;
- an assumption that privacy and safety issues have been taken care of by the sites themselves;
- low levels of confidence among users in their ability to manipulate privacy settings;
- information on privacy and safety being hard to find on sites;
- a feeling among younger users that they are invincible;
- a perception that social networking sites are less dangerous than other online activities, such as internet banking; and, for some,
- having consciously evaluated the risks, making the decision that they could be managed.
Discussions with children and adults using social networking sites highlighted an important point. This was that there is a clear overlap between the benefits and risks of some online social networking activities. For example, the underlying point of social networking is to share information. However the risk is that leaving privacy settings open means that the user cannot control who sees their information or how they use it. Forty-four per cent of adults with current social networking profiles said that their profile was visible to anyone, while 41% of 8-17 year olds with visible profiles said their profile could be seen by anyone.
The potential risks that we have highlighted raise a number of issues for industry and policy makers. These include how best to enforce the minimum age limits, how to ensure accessible and easy-to-understand privacy and safety policies, educating children, parents and adults about the privacy and safety implications of social networking sites, and the issue of privacy settings being set to default ‘open’.
Research on risk and harm
Our findings are consistent with other existing research on risk and harm. Harm and Offence in Media Content, a literature review of research compiled for Ofcom’s submission to the Byron review by Andrea Millwood Hargrave, Sonia Livingstone and David Brake shows that there is a lack of information about any actual harm (as opposed to risk of harm) experienced by users of social networking sites. They state that ‘much of the research reviewed here deals with the risk of harm (by measuring incidence of exposure to risk, risky behaviour, or the use of certain media contents which may be harmful to some, etc.). Some of the evidence does demonstrate a link from exposure to ‘actual’ ill effect, although this is generally measured either experimentally in the short-term or by using correlational methods which cannot rule out all confounding factors.’ (-4-)
Much of the research that does exist is from the US and does not map exactly to the situation in the UK. More research will need to be done to fill gaps in the current research base before a clearer picture of actual harm and the negative aspects of social networking in the long term emerges.
1.- Unless otherwise stated, this report uses the term ‘children’ to include all young people aged 8-17.
2.- 16 and 17 year olds are classed as adults for the purposes of the media literacy audit, but children for the purposes of the Children, young people and online content research.
3.- The result for adult privacy settings is not directly comparable to that of children due to different questions and sample size in the studies
4.- The full literature review can be found at Annex 6: Literary Review
The full document is available below: