Teens, Social Media, and Privacy
Teens share a wide range of information about themselves on social media sites;1 indeed the sites themselves are designed to encourage the sharing of information and the expansion of networks. However, few teens embrace a fully public approach to social media. Instead, they take an array of steps to restrict and prune their profiles, and their patterns of reputation management on social media vary greatly according to their gender and network size. These are among the key findings from a new report based on a survey of 802 teens that examines teens’ privacy management on social media sites:
- Teens are sharing more information about themselves on social media sites than they did in the past. For the five different types of personal information that we measured in both 2006 and 2012, each is significantly more likely to be shared by teen social media users in our most recent survey.
- Teen Twitter use has grown significantly: 24% of online teens use Twitter, up from 16% in 2011.
- The typical (median) teen Facebook user has 300 friends, while the typical teen Twitter user has 79 followers.
- Focus group discussions with teens show that they have waning enthusiasm for Facebook, disliking the increasing adult presence, people sharing excessively, and stressful “drama,” but they keep using it because participation is an important part of overall teenage socializing.
- 60% of teen Facebook users keep their profiles private, and most report high levels of confidence in their ability to manage their settings.
- Teens take other steps to shape their reputation, manage their networks, and mask information they don’t want others to know; 74% of teen social media users have deleted people from their network or friends list.
- Teen social media users do not express a high level of concern about third-party access to their data; just 9% say they are “very” concerned.
- On Facebook, increasing network size goes hand in hand with network variety, information sharing, and personal information management.
- In broad measures of online experience, teens are considerably more likely to report positive experiences than negative ones. For instance, 52% of online teens say they have had an experience online that made them feel good about themselves.
Teens are sharing more information about themselves on social media sites than they did in the past.
Teens are increasingly sharing personal information on social media sites, a trend that is likely driven by the evolution of the platforms teens use as well as changing norms around sharing. A typical teen’s MySpace profile from 2006 was quite different in form and function from the 2006 version of Facebook as well as the Facebook profiles that have become a hallmark of teenage life today. For the five different types of personal information that we measured in both 2006 and 2012, each is significantly more likely to be shared by teen social media users on the profile they use most often.
- 91% post a photo of themselves, up from 79% in 2006.
- 71% post their school name, up from 49%.
- 71% post the city or town where they live, up from 61%.
- 53% post their email address, up from 29%.
- 20% post their cell phone number, up from 2%.
In addition to the trend questions, we also asked five new questions about the profile teens use most often and found that among teen social media users:
- 92% post their real name to the profile they use most often.2
- 84% post their interests, such as movies, music, or books they like.
- 82% post their birth date.
- 62% post their relationship status.
- 24% post videos of themselves.
Older teens are more likely than younger teens to share certain types of information, but boys and girls tend to post the same kind of content.
Generally speaking, older teen social media users (ages 14-17), are more likely to share certain types of information on the profile they use most often when compared with younger teens (ages 12-13).
Older teens who are social media users more frequently share:
- Photos of themselves on their profile (94% older teens vs. 82% of younger teens)
- Their school name (76% vs. 56%)
- Their relationship status (66% vs. 50%)
- Their cell phone number (23% vs. 11%)
While boys and girls generally share personal information on social media profiles at the same rates, cell phone numbers are a key exception. Boys are significantly more likely to share their numbers than girls (26% vs. 14%). This is a difference that is driven by older boys. Various differences between white and African-American social media-using teens are also significant, with the most notable being the lower likelihood that African-American teens will disclose their real names on a social media profile (95% of white social media-using teens do this vs. 77% of African-American teens).3
16% of teen social media users have set up their profile to automatically include their location in posts.
Beyond basic profile information, some teens choose to enable the automatic inclusion of location information when they post. Some 16% of teen social media users said they set up their profile or account so that it automatically includes their location in posts. Boys and girls and teens of all ages and socioeconomic backgrounds are equally likely to say that they have set up their profile to include their location when they post. Focus group data suggests that many teens find sharing their location unnecessary and unsafe, while others appreciate the opportunity to signal their location to friends and parents.
Teen Twitter use has grown significantly: 24% of online teens use Twitter, up from 16% in 2011.
Twitter draws a far smaller crowd than Facebook for teens, but its use is rising. One in four online teens uses Twitter in some way. While overall use of social networking sites among teens has hovered around 80%, Twitter grew in popularity; 24% of online teens use Twitter, up from 16% in 2011 and 8% the first time we asked this question in late 2009.
African-American teens are substantially more likely to report using Twitter when compared with white youth.
Continuing a pattern established early in the life of Twitter, African-American teens who are internet users are more likely to use the site when compared with their white counterparts. Two in five (39%) African-American teens use Twitter, while 23% of white teens use the service.
Public accounts are the norm for teen Twitter users.
While those with Facebook profiles most often choose private settings, Twitter users, by contrast, are much more likely to have a public account.
- 64% of teens with Twitter accounts say that their tweets are public, while 24% say their tweets are private.
- 12% of teens with Twitter accounts say that they “don’t know” if their tweets are public or private.
- While boys and girls are equally likely to say their accounts are public, boys are significantly more likely than girls to say that they don’t know (21% of boys who have Twitter accounts report this, compared with 5% of girls).
The typical (median) teen Facebook user has 300 friends, while the typical teen Twitter user has 79 followers.
Overall, teens have far fewer followers on Twitter when compared with Facebook friends; the typical (median) teen Facebook user has 300 friends, while the typical (median) teen Twitter user has 79 followers. Girls and older teens tend to have substantially larger Facebook friend networks compared with boys and younger teens.
Teens’ Facebook friendship networks largely mirror their offline networks. Seven in ten say they are friends with their parents on Facebook.
Teens, like other Facebook users, have different kinds of people in their online social networks. And how teens construct that network has implications for who can see the material they share in those digital social spaces:
- 98% of Facebook-using teens are friends with people they know from school.
- 91% of teen Facebook users are friends with members of their extended family.
- 89% are connected to friends who do not attend the same school.
- 76% are Facebook friends with brothers and sisters.
- 70% are Facebook friends with their parents.
- 33% are Facebook friends with other people they have not met in person.
- 30% have teachers or coaches as friends in their network.
- 30% have celebrities, musicians or athletes in their network.
Older teens tend to be Facebook friends with a larger variety of people, while younger teens are less likely to friend certain groups, including those they have never met in person.
Older teens are more likely than younger ones to have created broader friend networks on Facebook. Older teens (14-17) who use Facebook are more likely than younger teens (12-13) to be connected with:
- Friends who go to different schools (92% vs. 82%)
- People they have never met in person, not including celebrities (36% vs. 25%)
- Teachers or coaches (34% vs. 19%)
Girls are also more likely than boys (37% vs. 23%) to be Facebook friends with coaches or teachers, the only category of Facebook friends where boys and girls differ.
African-American youth are nearly twice as likely as whites to be Facebook friends with celebrities, athletes, or musicians (48% vs. 25%).
Focus group discussions with teens show that they have waning enthusiasm for Facebook.
In focus groups, many teens expressed waning enthusiasm for Facebook. They dislike the increasing number of adults on the site, get annoyed when their Facebook friends share inane details, and are drained by the “drama” that they described as happening frequently on the site. The stress of needing to manage their reputation on Facebook also contributes to the lack of enthusiasm. Nevertheless, the site is still where a large amount of socializing takes place, and teens feel they need to stay on Facebook in order to not miss out.
Users of sites other than Facebook express greater enthusiasm for their choice.
Those teens who used sites like Twitter and Instagram reported feeling like they could better express themselves on these platforms, where they felt freed from the social expectations and constraints of Facebook. Some teens may migrate their activity and attention to other sites to escape the drama and pressures they find on Facebook, although most still remain active on Facebook as well.
60% of teen Facebook users keep their profiles private, and most report high levels of confidence in their ability to manage their settings.
Teens have a variety of ways to make available or limit access to their personal information on social media sites. Privacy settings are one of many tools in a teen’s personal data management arsenal. Among teen Facebook users, most choose private settings that allow only approved friends to view the content that they post.
Most keep their Facebook profile private. Girls are more likely than boys to restrict access to their profiles.
Some 60% of teens ages 12-17 who use Facebook say they have their profile set to private, so that only their friends can see it. Another 25% have a partially private profile, set so that friends of their friends can see what they post. And 14% of teens say that their profile is completely public.4
- Girls who use Facebook are substantially more likely than boys to have a private (friends only) profile (70% vs. 50%).
- By contrast, boys are more likely than girls to have a fully public profile that everyone can see (20% vs. 8%).
Most teens express a high level of confidence in managing their Facebook privacy settings.
More than half (56%) of teen Facebook users say it’s “not difficult at all” to manage the privacy controls on their Facebook profile, while one in three (33%) say it’s “not too difficult.” Just 8% of teen Facebook users say that managing their privacy controls is “somewhat difficult,” while less than 1% describe the process as “very difficult.”
Teens’ feelings of efficacy increase with age:
- 41% of Facebook users ages 12-13 say it is “not difficult at all” to manage their privacy controls, compared with 61% of users ages 14-17.
- Boys and girls report similar levels of confidence in managing the privacy controls on their Facebook profile.
For most teen Facebook users, all friends and parents see the same information and updates on their profile.
Beyond general privacy settings, teen Facebook users have the option to place further limits on who can see the information and updates they post. However, few choose to customize in that way: Among teens who have a Facebook account, only 18% say that they limit what certain friends can see on their profile. The vast majority (81%) say that all of their friends see the same thing on their profile.5 This approach also extends to parents; only 5% of teen Facebook users say they limit what their parents can see.
Teens take other steps to shape their reputation, manage their networks, and mask information they don’t want others to know; 74% of teen social media users have deleted people from their network or friends list.
Teens are cognizant of their online reputations, and take steps to curate the content and appearance of their social media presence. For many teens who were interviewed in focus groups for this report, Facebook was seen as an extension of offline interactions and the social negotiation and maneuvering inherent to teenage life. “Likes” specifically seem to be a strong proxy for social status, such that teen Facebook users will manipulate their profile and timeline content in order to garner the maximum number of “likes,” and remove photos with too few “likes.”
Pruning and revising profile content is an important part of teens’ online identity management.
Teen management of their profiles can take a variety of forms – we asked teen social media users about five specific activities that relate to the content they post and found that:
- 59% have deleted or edited something that they posted in the past.
- 53% have deleted comments from others on their profile or account.
- 45% have removed their name from photos that have been tagged to identify them.
- 31% have deleted or deactivated an entire profile or account.
- 19% have posted updates, comments, photos, or videos that they later regretted sharing.
74% of teen social media users have deleted people from their network or friends’ list; 58% have blocked people on social media sites.
Given the size and composition of teens’ networks, friend curation is also an integral part of privacy and reputation management for social media-using teens. The practice of friending, unfriending, and blocking serve as privacy management techniques for controlling who sees what and when. Among teen social media users:
- Girls are more likely than boys to delete friends from their network (82% vs. 66%) and block people (67% vs. 48%).
- Unfriending and blocking are equally common among teens of all ages and across all socioeconomic groups.
58% of teen social media users say they share inside jokes or cloak their messages in some way.
As a way of creating a different sort of privacy, many teen social media users will obscure some of their updates and posts, sharing inside jokes and other coded messages that only certain friends will understand:
- 58% of teen social media users say they share inside jokes or cloak their messages in some way.
- Older teens are considerably more likely than younger teens to say that they share inside jokes and coded messages that only some of their friends understand (62% vs. 46%).
26% say that they post false information like a fake name, age, or location to help protect their privacy.
One in four (26%) teen social media users say that they post fake information like a fake name, age or location to help protect their privacy.
- African-American teens who use social media are more likely than white teens to say that they post fake information to their profiles (39% vs. 21%).
Teen social media users do not express a high level of concern about third-party access to their data; just 9% say they are “very” concerned.
Overall, 40% of teen social media users say they are “very” or “somewhat” concerned that some of the information they share on social networking sites might be accessed by third parties like advertisers or businesses without their knowledge. However, few report a high level of concern; 31% say that they are “somewhat” concerned, while just 9% say that they are “very” concerned.6 Another 60% in total report that they are “not too” concerned (38%) or “not at all” concerned (22%).
- Younger teen social media users (12-13) are considerably more likely than older teens (14-17) to say that they are “very concerned” about third party access to the information they share (17% vs. 6%).
Insights from our focus groups suggest that some teens may not have a good sense of whether the information they share on a social media site is being used by third parties.
When asked whether they thought Facebook gives anyone else access to the information they share, one middle schooler wrote: “Anyone who isn’t friends with me cannot see anything about my profile except my name and gender. I don’t believe that [Facebook] would do anything with my info.” Other high schoolers shared similar sentiments, believing that Facebook would not or should not share their information.
Parents, by contrast, express high levels of concern about how much information advertisers can learn about their children’s behavior online.
Parents of the surveyed teens were asked a related question: “How concerned are you about how much information advertisers can learn about your child’s online behavior?” A full 81% of parents report being “very” or “somewhat” concerned, with 46% reporting they are “very concerned.” Just 19% report that they are not too concerned or not at all concerned about how much advertisers could learn about their child’s online activities.
Teens who are concerned about third party access to their personal information are also more likely to engage in online reputation management.
Teens who are somewhat or very concerned that some of the information they share on social network sites might be accessed by third parties like advertisers or businesses without their knowledge more frequently delete comments, untag themselves from photos or content, and deactivate or delete their entire account. Among teen social media users, those who are “very” or “somewhat” concerned about third party access are more likely than less concerned teens to:
- Delete comments that others have made on their profile (61% vs. 49%).
- Untag themselves in photos (52% vs. 41%).
- Delete or deactivate their profile or account (38% vs. 25%).
- Post updates, comments, photos or videos that they later regret (26% vs. 14%).
On Facebook, increasing network size goes hand in hand with network variety, information sharing, and personal information management.
Teens with larger Facebook networks are more frequent users of social networking sites and tend to have a greater variety of people in their friend networks. They also share a wider range of information on their profile when compared with those who have a smaller number of friends on the site. Yet even as they share more information with a wider range of people, they are also more actively engaged in maintaining their online profile or persona.
Teens with large Facebook friend networks are more frequent social media users and participate on a wider diversity of platforms in addition to Facebook.
Teens with larger Facebook networks are fervent social media users who exhibit a greater tendency to “diversify” their platform portfolio:
- 65% of teens with more than 600 friends on Facebook say that they visit social networking sites several times a day, compared with 27% of teens with 150 or fewer Facebook friends.
- Teens with more than 600 Facebook friends are more than three times as likely to also have a Twitter account when compared with those who have 150 or fewer Facebook friends (46% vs. 13%). They are six times as likely to use Instagram (12% vs. 2%).
Teens with larger Facebook networks tend to have more variety within those networks.
Almost all Facebook users (regardless of network size) are friends with their schoolmates and extended family members. However, other types of people begin to appear as the size of teens’ Facebook networks expand:
- Teen Facebook users with more than 600 friends in their network are much more likely than those with smaller networks to be Facebook friends with peers who don’t attend their own school, with people they have never met in person (not including celebrities and other “public figures”), as well as with teachers or coaches.
- On the other hand, teens with the largest friend networks are actually less likely to be friends with their parents on Facebook when compared with those with the smallest networks (79% vs. 60%).
Teens with large networks share a wider range of content, but are also more active in profile pruning and reputation management activities.
Teens with the largest networks (more than 600 friends) are more likely to include a photo of themselves, their school name, their relationship status, and their cell phone number on their profile when compared with teens who have a relatively small number of friends in their network (under 150 friends). However, teens with large friend networks are also more active reputation managers on social media.
- Teens with larger friend networks are more likely than those with smaller networks to block other users, to delete people from their friend network entirely, to untag photos of themselves, or to delete comments others have made on their profile.
- They are also substantially more likely to automatically include their location in updates and share inside jokes or coded messages with others.
In broad measures of online experience, teens are considerably more likely to report positive experiences than negative ones.
In the current survey, we wanted to understand the broader context of teens’ online lives beyond Facebook and Twitter. A majority of teens report positive experiences online, such as making friends and feeling closer to another person, but some do encounter unwanted content and contact from others.
- 52% of online teens say they have had an experience online that made them feel good about themselves. Among teen social media users, 57% said they had an experience online that made them feel good, compared with 30% of teen internet users who do not use social media.
- One in three online teens (33%) say they have had an experience online that made them feel closer to another person. Looking at teen social media users, 37% report having an experience somewhere online that made them feel closer to another person, compared with just 16% of online teens who do not use social media.
One in six online teens say they have been contacted online by someone they did not know in a way that made them feel scared or uncomfortable.
Unwanted contact from strangers is relatively uncommon, but 17% of online teens report some kind of contact that made them feel scared or uncomfortable.7 Online girls are more than twice as likely as boys to report contact from someone they did not know that made them feel scared or uncomfortable (24% vs. 10%).
Few internet-using teens have posted something online that caused problems for them or a family member, or got them in trouble at school.
A small percentage of teens have engaged in online activities that had negative repercussions for them or their family; 4% of online teens say they have shared sensitive information online that later caused a problem for themselves or other members of their family. Another 4% have posted information online that got them in trouble at school.
More than half of internet-using teens have decided not to post content online over reputation concerns.
More than half of online teens (57%) say they have decided not to post something online because they were concerned it would reflect badly on them in the future. Teen social media users are more likely than other online teens who do not use social media to say they have refrained from sharing content due to reputation concerns (61% vs. 39%).
Large numbers of youth have lied about their age in order to gain access to websites and online accounts.
In 2011, we reported that close to half of online teens (44%) admitted to lying about their age at one time or another so they could access a website or sign up for an online account. In the latest survey, 39% of online teens admitted to falsifying their age in order gain access to a website or account, a finding that is not significantly different from the previous survey.
Close to one in three online teens say they have received online advertising that was clearly inappropriate for their age.
Exposure to inappropriate advertising online is one of the many risks that parents, youth advocates, and policy makers are concerned about. Yet, little has been known until now about how often teens encounter online ads that they feel are intended for more (or less) mature audiences. In the latest survey, 30% of online teens say they have received online advertising that is “clearly inappropriate” for their age.
About the survey and focus groups
These findings are based on a nationally representative phone survey run by the Pew Research Center’s Internet & American Life Project of 802 parents and their 802 teens ages 12-17. It was conducted between July 26 and September 30, 2012. Interviews were conducted in English and Spanish and on landline and cell phones. The margin of error for the full sample is ± 4.5 percentage points.
This report marries that data with insights and quotes from in-person focus groups conducted by the Youth and Media team at the Berkman Center for Internet & Society at Harvard University beginning in February 2013. The focus groups focused on privacy and digital media, with special emphasis on social media sites. The team conducted 24 focus group interviews with 156 students across the greater Boston area, Los Angeles (California), Santa Barbara (California), and Greensboro (North Carolina). Each focus group lasted 90 minutes, including a 15-minute questionnaire completed prior to starting the interview, consisting of 20 multiple-choice questions and 1 open-ended response. Although the research sample was not designed to constitute representative cross-sections of particular population(s), the sample includes participants from diverse ethnic, racial, and economic backgrounds. Participants ranged in age from 11 to 19. The mean age of participants is 14.5.
In addition, two online focus groups of teenagers ages 12-17 were conducted by the Pew Internet Project from June 20-27, 2012 to help inform the survey design. The first focus group was with 11 middle schoolers ages 12-14, and the second group was with nine high schoolers ages 14-17. Each group was mixed gender, with some racial, socio-economic, and regional diversity. The groups were conducted as an asynchronous threaded discussion over three days using an online platform and the participants were asked to log in twice per day.
Throughout this report, this focus group material is highlighted in several ways. Pew’s online focus group quotes are interspersed with relevant statistics from the survey in order to illustrate findings that were echoed in the focus groups or to provide additional context to the data. In addition, at several points, there are extensive excerpts boxed off as standalone text boxes that elaborate on a number of important themes that emerged from the in-person focus groups conducted by the Berkman Center.