Teenage life online

In June 2001, the Pew Research Center’s Internet & American Life Project published its first report about teenage life online and described the state of teens’ experiences online this way:

The Internet is the telephone, television, game console, and radio wrapped up in one for most teenagers and that means it has become a major “player” in many American families. Teens go online to chat with their friends, kill boredom, see the wider world, and follow the latest trends. Many enjoy doing all those things at the same time during their online sessions. Multitasking is their way of life. And the emotional hallmark of that life is enthusiasm for the new ways the Internet lets them connect with friends, expand their social networks, explore their identities, and learn new things.

This description of online life is still remarkably resonant in 2013. However, the complexity of these interactions has increased dramatically with the mass adoption of social media and mobile devices. Eight in ten online teens now use social media sites. And as the Project reported earlier this year, smartphone ownership among American teens has increased substantially; half of teen smartphone owners now say they mostly go online using their phone.

While social media and the devices that connect teens and their families have become increasingly valuable and deeply embedded into daily life, the concurrent rise in the economic value of the social media platforms and the advertising models that support them have raised concerns among policymakers and privacy advocates. As we reported in our “Parents, Teens and Online Privacy” report late last year, the policy community is wrestling with the new reality of the enormous amount of information that is shared by children and adults in digital environments and the ways that information can be collected, shared and sold as new form of digital currency.

As we also noted in the previous report, the Federal Trade Commission recently issued changes to the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA) that address some of the vast technological changes that have occurred since the law was first written in 1998.8

These modifications, which will take effect on July 1, 2013, include a new requirement that some third-party advertisers and other “plug-ins” will now have to comply with COPPA, and the definition of “personal information” has been expanded to include geolocation information, photos and videos. Persistent identifiers such as IP addresses and mobile device IDs are also now covered under the COPPA rule. At the same time, these amendments also simplify the information that website operators must include in their online privacy policy, and provide a range of options for obtaining parental consent (such as video conferencing and scanned forms). The Pew Research Center’s Internet & American Life Project does not take positions on policy issues, and as such, does not endorse or oppose any of these changes. However, many of the findings in this report are relevant to these most recent policy developments.9

Over several years, the Pew Internet Project has talked to teens and their parents about teens’ information sharing practices and privacy management on social media, but this report represents the Project’s first in-depth look at teens’ privacy and reputation management behaviors since the 2007 report, “Teens, Privacy and Online Social Networks.” This study also builds upon previous work conducted by the Berkman Center’s Youth and Media Project studying youth interactions with digital media. In particular, the 2010 “Youth, Privacy and Reputation” Literature Review highlights much of the foundational research in this area.

This report covers findings from a nationally representative survey of U.S. teens ages 12-17 and their parents, interspersed with focus group findings from online focus groups conducted before the national survey, and in-person focus groups conducted by the Berkman Center this spring.

What emerges is a portrait of teens who engage in a range of behaviors to manage the boundaries of their “social privacy” online. Far from being privacy indifferent, these youth are mindful about what they post, even if their primary focus and motivation is often their engagement with an audience of peers and family, rather than how their online behavior might be tracked by advertisers or other third parties.

While some do report concerns about third-party access to their social media postings, and some say they encounter advertising online that is inappropriate for their age, privacy from businesses and advertisers is not top of mind for most teens. However, this generally echoes other studies of concern among adults, which suggest that there is a persistent minority of the public that expresses strong concerns about institutional and commercial access to personal information.10 In contrast, parent concern levels with regard to their children are relatively high overall, a finding that has been documented in other recent studies of parents with teenage children.11

Patterns of teen social media use change with age, and this has important implications for understanding the evolution of teens’ personal privacy strategies. Younger teens, who are often newer users to social media platforms, tend to have smaller networks and do not post as much content to their profiles. Older teens, who are more frequent users of social media sites, have amassed larger networks and tend to be friends with a wider range of people on sites like Facebook.

Yet, one of the most striking themes that surfaced through the Berkman focus groups this spring was the sense of a social burden teens associated with Facebook. While Facebook is still deeply integrated in teens’ everyday lives, it is sometimes seen as a utility and an obligation rather than an exciting new platform that teens can claim as their own.

Interestingly, teens have bucked a longstanding trend in their use of Twitter; while teens have historically been early adopters of a range of communications activities and social media platforms, adults were the first to colonize Twitter. However, teens are now migrating to Twitter in growing numbers, often as a supplement to their Facebook use. Instagram (owned by Facebook) and Snapchat also appeal to many teens, and though neither platform was used by a large number of teens at the time of our national survey, both were mentioned repeatedly in our focus groups.

Ultimately, teens, like adults, are finding ways to “diversify” their social media portfolio for different purposes. In some cases, it helps them to compartmentalize smaller groups of friends and certain kinds of interactions. In other cases, the newer platforms are appealing for the features (or lack thereof) and functionality they offer. And while multiple headlines have proclaimed some variation of the “death of Facebook,”12 there were no indications in either the national survey or the focus groups of a mass exodus from Facebook.