Numbers, Facts and Trends Shaping Your World

Teens, kindness and cruelty on social network sites

Part 3: Privacy and Safety Issues

In this section of the report, we discuss some of the key issues that relate to teens’ privacy practices and risks to their online safety. We present findings on certain behaviors that teens engage in that may, depending on the circumstances, serve as protective measures or have risky implications for the sanctity of their online information. Some of these risky behaviors, such as falsifying age information, are relatively common, while activities like “sexting” appear to be more isolated. The privacy choices that teens make when using social network sites serve as an important indicator for understanding the level of publicity that accompanies their interactions in these spaces.

Close to half of online teens have said they were older in order to access a website or online service.

In order to comply32 with the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA), many general audience websites that collect personal information from their users require that users they are at least 13 years old.33 This includes popular sites like Facebook and YouTube, all of whom ask users to confirm that they meet this age requirement when setting up an account. Other websites that contain adult-oriented material such as alcohol-related advertising or sexually explicit material may require the user to be at least 18 or 21 years of age.

However, close to half of online teens (44%) admit to lying about their age at one time or another so they could access a website or sign up for an online account. When we asked a similar question in 2000, two years after COPPA’s enactment, just 15% of online teens admitted to lying about their age to gain access to a website.34 Websites are not currently required to verify a user’s age, and there is an ongoing debate35 about whether or not such verification is technically and practically possible.

Boys and girls are equally likely to say they were older to gain access to a website or service. These incidents of “inaccurate” reporting could have occurred at any point in the child’s internet-using years, and as such, the variations by age are difficult to interpret. The youngest group of teens in our sample, those ages 12-13, are more likely than 17-year-olds to say they have lied about their age (49% vs. 30%).

Teens who use social media are more likely than non-users to say they have lied about their age.

Online teens who use social network sites are twice as likely as non-users to say they have misrepresented their age online in order to gain access to websites and online services (49% vs. 26%). The teens who admitted to this practice did not specify the sites where they had been dishonest in reporting their age. These misrepresentations could have occurred anywhere online – while creating a social network profile or attempting to access another service intended for older audiences.

However, as we noted in our 2007 report, “Teens, Privacy and Online Social Networks,” teen profile owners commonly provide false information. At that time, more than half said they had posted some fake information to their profiles, and many of the examples we heard about from teens in our focus groups at that time included instances of lying about one’s age.36

As noted earlier, our latest survey shows that 45% of 12-year-olds who are online are social network users of sites like Facebook and MySpace, all of which have 13 as a minimum age.37 Looking specifically at Twitter, 13% of all 12-year old internet users say they use the site, which could include reading or posting material. A Consumer Reports study from this year, which extrapolated estimates based on parent interviews, suggested that 7.5 million American children under the age of 13 were Facebook users, and that approximately 5 million were age 10 and under.38

Looking more closely at variations across different services, 49% of all Facebook-using teens say they have falsified their age in order to gain access to an online service, compared with 31% of those who do not use Facebook. And while Twitter users are a much smaller group (n=127 teens in our sample), 61% of them say they have lied about their age to gain access to a website or service somewhere online, compared with 41% of non-users. Again, these figures do not represent an estimate of lying that occurs on those specific sites.

Teens who maintain public profiles on social network sites are far more likely than those who have private profiles to report lying about their age (62% vs. 45%). However, falsifying age information does not vary according to the frequency of a teen’s social network site use. For instance, teen social network users who go on the sites daily (49%) are just as likely as those who use the sites on a weekly basis (50%) to say that they have misrepresented their true age.

One in three online teens has shared a password with a friend or significant other.

Roughly one in three online teens (30%) reports sharing one of their passwords with a friend, boyfriend, or girlfriend. While passwords may be guarded closely by some youth, password sharing among peers can be a sign of trust and intimacy. Online girls are much more likely than online boys to share passwords with friends and significant others (38% vs. 23%), and older teens ages 14-17 are more likely to do so than younger ones (36% vs. 17%). Looking more closely at older girls ages 14-17, nearly half (47%) admit to sharing passwords with friends or significant others.

Password sharing is especially common among users of social network sites; 33% of all teen social network site users say they have shared a password with a friend or significant other, compared with 19% of teen internet users who don’t use social network sites. However, there are no significant variations according to the frequency of teens’ social media use, nor by the kinds of privacy restrictions they place on their profile.

Falsifying age information and sharing passwords

More than half of online teens have decided not to post something online because they were concerned it might reflect badly on them in the future.

Teenagers are often accused of being careless and naïve – particularly when it comes to the way they manage their privacy and digital footprints online. Yet, our data suggest that many online teens are considering the implications of their actions at least some of the time. Indeed, more than half (55%) of online teens say they have decided not to post something online out of concern that it might reflect poorly on them in the future.

As other prominent social media researchers have noted, the privacy-protecting behaviors of youth are complex, and involve a combination of application choice, profile settings, selective friending, and message control.39 Contrary to the public perception that teens and young adults simply “don’t care” about their privacy online, there is growing evidence that younger users’ privacy aspirations are not radically different from the views held by older adults. One recent study conducted by researchers at the Berkeley Center for Law and Technology suggests that while some younger users of social media may have false confidence in the protections afforded by privacy laws, their attitudes and expectations about privacy are largely in sync with older Americans.40

Our focus group conversations with teens also highlight various examples of how they think about the impact of their online postings, and how they adjust their behavior accordingly. Some teens, such as one middle school girl we spoke with, decide to refrain from using social network sites altogether:

  • MIDDLE SCHOOL GIRL:  I don’t want a Facebook. I’m afraid that like someday, something’s going to come back and it’s going to be like the end of my world because – I mean I don’t know what I would do […] that would be so bad […] But you hear stories and it just – it worries me. Like I tell all my friends who like take pictures, like, I’m like, you can’t tag me in that. You can’t tag anybody who’s not on Facebook.

Older teen internet users (ages 14-17) are more likely than younger teens (ages 12-13) to say they have reconsidered posting content online after thinking about the possibility of negative implications (59% vs. 46%). However, online teens age 17—who are likely to be preparing for or in the midst of college and job applications—report the highest levels of this kind of digital withholding. More than two-thirds of online teens age 17 (67%) say they have decided not to post something online because they thought it may reflect badly on them in the future.

Older online girls ages 14-17 (63%) are more likely than the youngest boys ages 12-13 (40%) to say they have refrained from posting content because it might affect how they are perceived in the future. However, this difference may be related to the fact that older girls are much more frequent internet users and post content more often to social media sites.

Teen social network site users are almost twice as likely as non-social network site-using online teens (60% vs. 34%) to say they have withheld content after considering the potential ramifications.

Again, there were no notable variations according to the frequency of teens’ social network site use or the kinds of privacy settings they choose for their profile.

The vast majority of teens say they have private profiles visible only to “friends.”

Beyond what they post, the choices teens make about who they share information with via their social media profiles suggest that most teens are cognizant of their online privacy and have made choices to try to protect it.41 Close to two-thirds (62%) of teens who have a social media profile say the profile they use most often is set to be private so that only their friends can see the content they post.42 One in five (19%) say their profile is partially private so that friends of friends or their networks can see some version of their profile. Just 17% say their profile is set to public so that everyone can see it. This distribution is consistent regardless of how often a teen uses social network sites.

However, teens in our focus groups did describe the important differences in how various applications are structured, and how the affordances of the privacy settings on different profiles affect their willingness to use them. One middle school-aged boy described how his privacy concerns ultimately led him to delete his Twitter account:

  • MIDDLE SCHOOL BOY:  I mean, I had a Twitter. But Twitter is scary because like it’s so much more – like you can Google my name and it will have my Twitter account. And then it’s not really as protected as Facebook […] – because in Facebook, you can set a setting so it really can’t see you. But like in Twitter, I always feel like that anyone can really see any tweet that I’m doing, which may be not true… There wasn’t enough privacy, so I just deleted it. And just stick with Facebook.

Similarly, another boy in the same group said that he had deleted his Buzz account because he felt it was too public:

  • MIDDLE SCHOOL BOY:  The same thing happened with me on Buzz, because I Googled my name on Google and all my like Buzz things that I’d posted and commented on came up. So I deleted my account.           

Those who have had negative experiences are more likely to have public profiles.

Teens who have had at least one negative outcome from an experience on a social network site are almost twice as likely as those who have not had a bad experience to say that their profile is public (23% vs. 12%). Cutting the data another way, teens with public profiles are substantially more likely than those with more private profiles to say that they ended their friendship with someone because of something that happened on a social network site. Likewise, those who admit to lying about their age in order to access a website or online service are more likely to have public profiles when compared with those who say they have not misrepresented their age (21% vs. 12%).

Teens who have parents that express a high level of concern about the way teens treat each other online and via cell phones are somewhat more likely to report having profiles that are set to private; 87% of teens with very concerned parents have private profiles, compared with 77% of those whose parents are less concerned.

Younger social media-using teens (ages 12-13) are just as likely as older teens (ages 14-17) to say they have set their profile to private. However, social media-using girls are far more likely than boys to say they have restricted their profile to friends only. Three in four (74%) report this, compared with just half (51%) of social media-using boys. Likewise, 21% of boys have a profile that is set to public, while just 12% of girls report this. Looking at those who have a partially private profile, 25% of social media-using boys report this compared with just 13% of social media-using girls.

Teen social media users who are black (30%) are more likely to say they have a public profile when compared with white (15%) or Hispanic (11%) teens.

However, while this gives us a general sense of the ways teens are controlling who is able to view the updates on their profile, it does not tell us a great deal about the fine-tuning that is necessary to manage every aspect of one’s profile online. For instance, basic profile information is often available by default, no matter what settings the user chooses. Facebook, the most popular social networking platform among teens, makes basic profile information such as a user’s name, gender, and profile picture visible to every user of the service. Other information such as networks, likes, activities, and interests are available by default but can be restricted by changing the privacy settings.43 Additional customization that allows users to place detailed restrictions on who sees individual posts, photos, or other content is possible, though our findings suggest that most teens are not practicing this kind of micromanagement.

Further complicating this picture is the fact that the default privacy settings on Facebook and other social network sites have changed over time, requiring users who may wish to maintain tighter restrictions over their information to actively “opt-out” of changes that encourage a more open profile. And it is not just teens who struggle with these moving targets. Research examining practices among adults suggests that social network site users may hold inaccurate beliefs about the level of public visibility of their content on the sites.44

Teens with restricted privacy settings broadcast information widely within their networks and do not limit what certain friends can see.

Among those teens whose profile is at least partially private, the vast majority say that they do not take additional steps to limit what certain friends can and cannot see within that network. Instead, once teens choose the general privacy settings for their profile, most appear to be broadcasting the same status updates, photos, likes, and other content to everyone in their network of friends; 84% say that all of their friends see the same thing when they post, and just 15% say they limit what certain friends can see.

Teens of all ages in our focus groups repeatedly described the process of friending as their first line of defense in managing their privacy online:

  • MIDDLE SCHOOL GIRL:  There are some qualifications you got to pass if you want to be my friend [on Facebook]. You can’t be over a certain age. If you over like – if you real old, I’m not going to accept that request – (laughter) – because you’re old, ew. Why did you send me a friend request? If you’re old and if I know you and I don’t like you, I’m not going to accept your request. Now I think it’s like 17 requests in my friend box? I’m not going to accept. They’re going to sit there.
  • HIGH SCHOOL BOY:  I got my school up there, my name, all my friends. I block, like, certain stuff, like I might block everybody from seeing my profile pictures or block them from seeing a certain photo I don’t want them to see. … I just do it as a whole: [if] you’re my friend, you can see everything, but if you’re not my friend, you won’t see nothing.

However, many teens described large networks that included lesser-known acquaintances who they decided to friend for various reasons. Some described feeling as though they were obligated to friend everyone in their school, while others talked about friending people they had met or seen at school events:

  • MIDDLE SCHOOL GIRL:  Sometimes … your friends on Facebook, you might not know all of them, but like, oh, you’ve seen them at a basketball game or you’ve seen them at a football game or, like, you’ve seen each other in person but you’re not, like, really close friends. You’re just, oh, hey, I know him; I have him as a friend on Facebook.

There are no significant differences by gender, age, or race/ethnicity among those who customize what they share within their networks.

Teens who have parents that are friends with them on social network sites are no more likely to say that they customize their posts to limit what certain friends can see. However, we did hear stories in our focus groups that suggested some savvy teens alter their messaging when parents are part of their audience:

  • HIGH SCHOOL GIRL:  Like if I’m about to update a status and I don’t like somebody to see it, I, like, block them from seeing my status. Say for my mother, for example. Like, I’ve got my mother on Facebook and I want to update something and I don’t want her to see it, so I block [her from seeing it].

Few teens say they have sent sexually suggestive images or videos, but 1 in 6 say they have received them.

While many teens send them deliberately, perhaps the most extreme example of a breach of a teen’s privacy is the sharing of sexually suggestive images beyond the intended recipient. As we have reported in the past,45 parents, educators, and advocates are deeply concerned about the practice of “sexting,” or the creating, sharing, and forwarding of sexually suggestive nude or nearly nude images by minor teens.

Previous Pew Internet Project research has focused on the cell phone as a site of this activity, and these new findings, which are technology agnostic, expand upon that work. In our 2009 report, we identified three scenarios in which sexting most often occurs among teens:

  • Exchanges of images solely between two romantic partners
  • Exchanges between partners that are then shared outside the relationship
  • Exchanges between people who are not yet in a relationship, but where often one person hopes to be.

In the current study, just 2% of all teens ages 12-17 say they have sent a “sexually suggestive nude or nearly nude photo or video” of themselves to someone else. That represents 3% of all teen cell users and has remained stable since 2009 when 4% of teen cell users answered a similar question.46 A much larger segment of the teen population – 16% of all teens and 18% of cell users – say they have received a sexually suggestive nude or nearly nude photo or video of someone else they know. By comparison, in 2009, 15% cell-owning teens said they had received such images of someone they know.

As was the case in 2009, there are no significant gender or age differences among those who say they have sent a sexually suggestive message. However, in a trend that is also consistent over the past two years, older teens are much more likely than younger teens to say that they have received a sexually suggestive nude or nearly nude photo or video of someone they know; 21% of older teen cell users report this, compared with just 6% of those ages 12-13. Boys and girls across all age groups are equally likely to receive a sexually suggestive photo or video.

  1. Or more technically, to avoid having to comply with COPPA, which requires that companies that have knowledge of youth under 13 on their site gain verifiable parental consent for the collection of any personal information from that child.
  2. For more information on COPPA compliance, see:
  3. In the December 2000 survey, the question wording was: “Have you ever said you were older than you are so you could get onto a web site?” And a further note: That question was asked at a time before the most popular forms of social media came into being, and just after the FTC finished rule-making guidance for COPPA. One major concern of the policy community then and now is children’s access to adult content.
  4. Palfrey, J., Sacco, D., boyd, d. (2008) “Enhancing Child Safety and Online Technologies: Final Report of the Internet Safety Technical Taskforce,” Berkman Center for Internet & Society, Harvard University.
  5. For more detail, see:–What-Teens-Share-and-Restrict-in-an-Online-Environment/04-More-than-half-of-teens-post-false-information-in-online-profiles.aspx
  6. We are not able to report the number of 12-year-olds who use Facebook, or MySpace specifically because of a very small sample size.
  7. Survey findings available at:
  8. See: Ellison, N.B., Vitak, J., Steinfield, C., Gray, R. & Lampe, C. (2011). “Negotiating privacy concerns and social capital needs in a social media environment.” In S. Trepte & L. Reinecke (Eds.), Privacy Online: Perspectives on Privacy and Self-Disclosure in the Social Web. Heidelberg and New York: Springer, pp. 19-32. See also: danah boyd and Alice Marwick. (2011). “Social Privacy in Networked Publics: Teens’ Attitudes, Practices, and Strategies.” Paper presented at the Oxford Internet Institute Decade in Internet Time Symposium, September 22. (ssrn) Available at:
  9. Hoofnagle, Chris Jay, King, Jennifer, Li, Su and Turow, Joseph (2010). “How Different are Young Adults from Older Adults When it Comes to Information Privacy Attitudes and Policies?” Available at SSRN:
  10. The above noted research from danah boyd and Alice Marwick details how teen conceptions of “privacy” differ from their elders, and documents various messaging strategies beyond basic privacy settings that teens use to “achieve their privacy goals.” See: danah boyd and Alice Marwick. (2011). “Social Privacy in Networked Publics: Teens’ Attitudes, Practices, and Strategies.” Paper presented at the Oxford Internet Institute Decade in Internet Time Symposium, September 22. (ssrn) Available at:
  11. This figure is consistent with what we have found in the past. In a similar question asked in 2006, 59% of teens with “active profiles” said that their profile was visible only to friends. See:–What-Teens-Share-and-Restrict-in-an-Online-Environment/05-Teens-walk-the-line-between-openness-and-privacy.aspx
  12. This description was accurate at the time of this report’s writing.
  13. Acquisti, A., & Gross, R. (2006). “Imagined communities: Awareness, information sharing, and privacy on the Facebook. In P.Golle & G.Danezis (Eds.), Proceedings of 6th Workshop on Privacy Enhancing Technologies” (pp. 36–58). Cambridge, UK: Robinson College. See also: Katherine Strater and Heather Richter Lipford. (2008). “Strategies and struggles with privacy in an online social networking community.” In Proceedings of the 22nd British HCI Group Annual Conference on People and Computers: Culture, Creativity, Interaction – Volume 1 (BCS-HCI ’08), Vol. 1. British Computer Society, Swinton, UK, UK, 111-119.
  14. Lenhart, A. (2009) “Teens and Sexting,” Pew Research Center’s Internet & American Life Project.
  15. The 2009 question was asked only of cell phone users and used wording that specified an exchange that took place via cell phone: “Have you ever sent a sexually suggestive nude or nearly nude photo or video of yourself to someone else using your cell phone?” For more detail, see “Teens and Sexting,” available at:
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