Pew has a new survey out today about how kids treat each other online, with questions that really drill down into teenagers’ behavior. In many ways, the findings are reassuring. The numbers make clear that meanness and bullying aren’t the norm for teenagers on social network sites (which really means Facebook, since that’s where more than nine in 10 of them are). That’s important, because if a bad behavior isn’t the norm, you can sell kids on that: It’s not true that everyone is trashing people on Facebook, and that’s one more reason why you shouldn’t either.
Almost 70 percent of kids say their peers are mostly kind to each other online. When unkindness—bullying and meanness—takes place, it’s usually in combination with similar cruelty in person. In other words, social networking is not creating a new breed of mean kids. It’s mostly the secondary outlet for the bad stuff that’s already happening.
That said, 15 percent of teens ages 12 through 17 have been harassed on a social network site in the last year. Fully 88 percent of kids have seen someone being mean online, 12 percent frequently. More than 20 percent report joining in on the harassment. One quarter say they’ve had an experience social networking that led to a face-to-face confrontation, 22 percent had an experience that ended a friendship, 13 felt nervous about going to school, and 8 percent got into a physical fight. In all, more than 40 percent of teens have had some negative experience on a social network site.
And the worrisome numbers rise for various subgroups of teenagers we might think of as more vulnerable—12 to 13 year olds as opposed to older teens, lower-income as opposed to higher income, black as opposed to white, girl as opposed to boys. For example, more than 30 percent of 12 to 13 year old girls, and of African-American teens, say that kids are mostly unkind to each other on social network sites, compared with 20 percent of teens overall. This stat was also higher for kids whose parents make less than $50,000 a year. In addition, 12 and 13 year olds were more likely to be nervous about going to school the next day based on something that happened to them online: 27 percent of the girls in this age bracket reported feeling this way.
There’s an overlap between having bad experiences online and having a public social networking profile. I recently criticized Facebook for encouraging widespread sharing among teens, so it was a relief to me to learn that in this survey 62 percent of the teenagers said their settings allowed only Facebook friends to see their posts. Still, that leaves 38 percent of kids with profiles set so their posts are entirely public, or shared with friends of friends, which often means hundreds or a few thousand people. And the kids with the public profiles are more likely to have had an experience social networking that makes them feel good about themselves—but they’re also more likely to have had a bad experience. They’re sending more out and getting more back, good and bad.
The bottom line is that we have subgroups of teenagers—middle schoolers, especially girls, and African-Americans—who are more likely to get into trouble and to get hurt on Facebook. This tracks with the reporting I’ve been doing for a book I’m writing about bullying. It also suggests another unsettling digital divide.
A heartening note to end on, though: The Pew survey shows that parents matter. They help kids cope with online harassment when they’re told about it, and when they’re concerned about online meanness, kids are more responsible about their privacy settings. And more parents are becoming vigilant: The vast majority talk with their kids about online behavior, a stat that has gone up since Pew’s last survey in 2006.
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