Are teens as wet behind the ears as we seem to think? Are we perhaps being so
cautious in our approach to protecting kids online that we are losing out on
some of the educational benefits of social networking? In this article, we look
at what teenagers themselves think about social networking and e-safety.
This is the text (more or less) of a talk I gave recently at a Naace social network conference.
Why am I qualified to speak on the subject?
Because the second edition of the book "Coming of Age: An
Introduction to the NEW Worldwide Web" includes contributions from 5
teenagers, and I have carried out some original research. The way this came
about was that Drew Buddie, who is at the conference today, suggested that I
look at the writing of one of his students, on the subject of playing games
online. I was quite impressed, and asked her if she would like to write a review
of Their Space, the Demos Report on social networking amongst teenagers. I will
come on to that later.
In a separate development, someone in Canada, an educator called Sharon
Peters, told me that her 14 year old daughter used social networking in
interesting ways. She uses it to meet people with similar tastes in music to her
herself, and also to discover other kinds of music by the same token. Also, she
uses a sort of social networking site called Fiction Fix to have her fiction
writing reviewed by her peers, and in order to review the efforts of others.
I decided not to bother relating statistics about how many millions of people
are in social networks. That information changes daily, the numbers are too huge
to comprehend in my opinion, and in any case I am not even sure how meaningful
I, for example, belong to about 10 social networks, and I am only active in 4
of them, and only frequently active in 2 of them. I am sure I am not unique in
Far more interesting for me are percentages.
For example, according to a recent report by the Financial Times, 22% of social network users are
children. That means that 78% are adults. I found that figure surprising, given
the emphasis in the media and in educational circles about children’s use of
As we are concerned today with child safety aspects of social networking, do
adults set a good example in the way they conduct themselves online from a
personal safety perspective?
Unfortunately, the answer is "no". According to the same FT report, in
October the UK’s National Identity Fraud Prevention Week revealed that 83% of
social network users were giving their full name, 38% gave their date of birth
and 63% made their email address public.
The report also bears reading because it shows that cyberbullying, both from
a perpetrator’s point of view and the victim’s point of view, is by no means
confined to children.
Before we come on to the results of my survey, I’d like to consider Their
This report came to these conclusions, amongst others:
Social networking in schools
- Schools should think about how they can prepare kids for the future
workplace, and this should involve parents and others, and so-called “softer”
skills should be more highly valued.
I don’t think anyone would argue with this, but the logical step, of making
use of social networking in schools, doesn’t yet appear to have been taken.
According to a study undertaken in the USA recently, 52% of School Districts
prohibit any use of social networking sites in schools.
Also, a report from the European Network and Security Agency, published in
October, recommends that schools should be discouraged from banning social
networking sites. It says:
“Social Networking Sites should be used in a controlled and open way with
co-ordinated campaigns to educate children, teachers and parents.”
Keeping safe online
- “This generation is capable of self-regulation when kept informed about
levels of risk.”
I don’t completely agree with this, for reasons which will become clear.
There are a number of issues here:
Nancy Willard, in a forthcoming chapter from Coming of Age, points out that
young people do not necessarily have the skill to assess how safe or dangerous
someone is. This is not just a matter of education, but also a matter of brain
Also, knowing that something should not be done, and knowing what should be
done instead, are two different things. A good example of this is where a
website asks for your date of birth. That sort of personal information can lay
you open to identity theft, so other things being equal, the most appropriate
response is to leave the field blank or, if that isn’t possible. To simply lie.
Young people need to be taught that. But it’s a paradox, isn’t it? We
consistently tell kids not to lie!
The findings from my own survey also suggest – I think “indicate” might be
too strong a term – that kids may not always practise what they preach. This is
also borne out by something Sarah wrote. Let me explain what I mean.
I set up my survey in a way that didn’t require the pupils to give me their
name or email address. Here are the instructions I gave on the form.
Thanks for agreeing to complete this survey. It
should take only a few minutes of your time -- it looks a lot because of the way
it has been set out! If the type is too small, then in your browser go to the
View menu and then click on Text Size (or similar) and choose a larger
The personal information won't be published: it is
purely to enable me to follow up with an email to you or your teacher in case I
have a question.
Your name is not required, but all that will happen
if you leave it blank is that you will receive an email starting "Dear [blank]".
You don't have to include your email address either,
but in that case you won't receive any thank-you email.
Finally, you don't have to answer the last question
either if it makes you feel uncomfortable.
Now, nearly 60% of the respondents included their email address. More
importantly, 41% of the respondents provided me with their email address despite
answering elsewhere in the survey that they don’t give away personal information
about themselves by posting details online.
So there is a bit of a mismatch, which may be explained by saying that the
pupils must have trusted me because their teacher introduced me to them. I
wasn’t just a random person, to use their vernacular.
But what this also suggests to me is that they may be aware of "pervs", as
they call them, in the sense of people who make inappropriate comments of a
sexual nature, but not necessarily paedophiles, who take a much longer term
I see a parallel with this in the real world. We are told to beware of
strangers, but in many crimes, the criminal is known to the victim.
Now, it may be that there is something unrepresentative about my survey, but
my conclusion that, in effect, teens don’t always practise what they preach is
supported by Sarah, the girl who reviewed Their Space for me. She was 16 years
old when she wrote the review. Here is what she said:
“When it comes to internet safety most teens are not the scrupulously safe
kids quoted in the article. How many teenagers do I know that check out the
strangers who add them on MSN or MySpace? Lots. How many of my friends and
acquaintances ignore the results of looking up the complete strangers on MySpace
or Facebook and add them regardless? I would say about 9.9 out of 10 out of the
many people I have asked. I know most of my friends get a kick out of having a
huge number of friends or contacts, and at least if they don’t think this way
now, they used to. Indeed, I know lots of them get bored when they have received
no comments, and so click on random people and add them without a second
thought. This is particularly true of younger teens, not older teens.”
The comment about comments is quite important, because what many people don’t
realise (until it Has been pointed out to them) that even if you delete your
profile, you still leave traces of yourself in comments.
Sarah goes on to say:
“When hearing about incidents of teenagers being put in danger or being taken
advantage of by adults posing as kids on the internet, most of my friends do not
really feel much sympathy for the children involved. We don’t take much notice
of these risks because incidents like this happen so infrequently – it is easier
to take the view that it would never happen to one of us than to constantly make
risk assessments of everything we do. There is a much greater risk of being hurt
by a stranger when walking down the street or out shopping. One of my school
friends (aged 15) when I asked what she thought about the dangers of talking to
strangers said “Well, that’s just tough isn’t it – if you’re stupid enough to
talk to a weirdo on the internet what do you expect?”. This was just before she
logged onto MySpace and accepted three new friends, all of whom she had never
met before in her life.”
Their Space also points out that when children are online, they are often
engaged in learning activities, often of an informal nature in the sense of
This is borne out by my own survey, which showed that the 3 most-cited
reasons for belonging to a social network were:
- To learn new things
- To do homework together with friends, and
- to play games
I assumed, when I saw these results, that they were skewed either because a
good proportion of the pupils are in private, ie fee-paying, schools or because
they were saying what they thought I wanted to hear. However, the USA study I
mentioned reported that 59% of students say they talk about education-related
topics online, and 50% say they specifically talk about schoolwork. So perhaps
we have less faith in the younger generation than they deserve.
As a general rule, I think the best way to find out teenagers’ view of
something is to ask them, and because I couldn’t find a study, especially in the
UK, that asked the questions I was specifically interested in, I conducted my
So, let me give you some information about the survey because it has a
bearing on the findings. I set the survey up online, and because I wanted to
make sure that it was completed by a reasonable number of people, and that those
people were, in fact, teenagers, I didn’t publish the URL of the survey.
Instead, I announced the existence of the survey in a newsletter I produce,
called Computers in Classrooms. As a result, 5 teachers said they would like
their students to take part, and in total 321 did.
This is not exactly a random sample in the truly statistical sense of the
term, neither is it a large one. I therefore regard my findings as being in the
nature of indicating potentially interesting future research, as well as forming
a basis for certain recommendations to schools.
But before you dismiss the validity of the exercise, I must point out that
many of the findings were not dissimilar to those of larger surveys, both in the
UK and in the USA, and that my conclusions are similar as far as recommendations
Furthermore, a sizeable proportion of the respondents to my survey are in
fee-paying schools, and I think that this may account for some of the
differences in my results and those of the larger surveys.
The schools that took part
Four schools took part in the survey. Three of these are fee-paying, and two
are girls only. Some university students took part as well.
My survey results
Two teenagers looked at the questions, a girl and a boy, and I amended the
survey in the light of what they said. I also discussed it with another
Number of children
321 altogether, of whom 96 were boys, and 225 were girls. This was because 2
of the 5 schools involved are all girls schools.
Most popular GENERAL networks
- MSN 262
- Bebo 179
- MySpace 160
- Facebook 119
- Cyworld 1
- Experience Project 2
- Friendster 11
- Hi5 22
- Internet Relay Chat 1
- Linkedin 0
- Multiply 2
- Ning 0
- Piczo 43
- Ringle 2
- Skype 50
- None 25
- Other 0
- Twitter 0
- Virb 0
- Yahoo Instant Messenger 29
Strictly speaking, MSN is not a social network, although it does have social
network features, like the ability to add friends. That’s why I included it,
together with the fact that lots of kids seem to use it for keeping in touch
with their friends. The important thing here is that the pupils could select
more than one option.
So as you would expect, leaving MSN aside, the most popular networks are
Bebo, MySpace and Facebook, in that order. I should say also that all the
schools are in the UK.
As you would expect, none of them belong to Linkedin, which is a social
networking site designed to facilitate business networking.
On average, the teens surveyed belong to 3 general networks.
Most popular SPECIALISED networks
I was also interested in specialised social networking. Meg, who I mentioned
"What is my source of music? It is, beyond anything, the internet."
She also said:
“Some of my friends are involved with iLike as well. I’ve learned how
compatible I am with them because of my music preferences. And I’ve met others
who enjoy the same music as I do.
“Both of these websites -- MySpace and iLike -- are really important to me as
a teenager. I’ve learned which bands I like and which I don’t. Not only that,
but with the internet’s help, I can easily find out when my favourite band’s
next concert will be and where.
“Finally, I can be an individual in the music I listen to and I can tell it
to the world!”
Here are the results of the survey:
- Video-sharing networks-- eg YouTube 194
- None 104
- Photo-sharing networks-- eg Flickr 61
- Music-sharing networks-- eg iLike 49
- Book-sharing networks-- eg FictionPress 9
- Other 1
Do you have a blog?
- Yes, it is part of my social network 124
- Yes, separately from my social network 26
- Yes, instead of belonging to a social network 3
- No 168 52%
Do you create or upload stuff to the internet, eg photos?
- Yes 208
- No 52
- Occasionally 61
Reasons for belonging to a social network
I gave the pupils the following responses to choose from, and asked them to
select one as their top reason, then one as their next best reason, and then one
as their third best reason.
- Discover new music
- Do homework together with friends -- 2nd most-cited reason
- Keep in touch with friends
- Learn new things -- Most popular #1 reason and Most cited reason
- Meet new people with similar interests
- Play games -- Most popular #2 & #3 reason and 3rd most-cited
- Share photos/videos/music
Other reasons given
- get in contact with old friends
- keep in touch with non-school freinds and Family
- So I don't get left out
- because everyone else does
- My parents are to (sic) annoying
number of friends online
Average number of online friends
46 (39 with cut-off of 200 friends)
When I looked at the average, it was skewed, in my opinion, by the fact that
some teenagers had said they had 500 or more friends. Actually, they may not
have been lying because (a) as Sarah says, people like to add friends, and (b),
Meg pointed out to me that people add bands as friends in MySpace, and sometimes
add other entities as friends, like a company, in order to keep up with their
Still, I looked at the average if I discounted anyone with more than 200
friends, and the results were only slightly different.
As a matter of fact, a survey in the USA quoted by Sonia Livingstone found
that the average number of friends that teens have online is 75, so my results
are quite conservative by comparison. However, the survey by the National School
Boards Association found an average of 42, which ties in with my results.
The modal average was 5.
Hours per week online
9. This compares with 12, found by another survey.
Have you met any of your online friends in real life?
- No 182
- Yes, I went with an adult and met them in a public place 5
- Yes, I went with a friend and met them in a public place 0
- Yes, I met them in a public place on my own 21
- Yes, but I didn't take any safety precautions 9
- Other 43
What is worrying here is that 11% didn’t take the most basic precautions.
Meeting someone alone, even in a public place, is not a good idea. A female
colleague of my wife’s was the victim of an attempted kidnapping. She was
standing in the street in broad daylight when a car pulled up and a man leapt
out and tried to drag her inside.
So, this finding doesn’t bear out the Demos view that teens are pretty savvy
when it comes to this kind of thing. The percentage of them meeting someone
online though does seem quite high: almost double a survey quoted by Sonia
Livingstone which said that 7% of respondents had met their offline contact
Regarding the “Other” category, what sort of comments were made there?
- I was with friends and met one of them unexpectedly
- i know everyone i talk to, im not sad, i don't talk to random people and
create a friendship!!!
- I knew them already
- Yes, they knew my friends and i met them in a public place with some other
Is your time online supervised by an adult (eg is computer in a family
This ties in with Sonia Livingstone’s conclusion that parental regulation has
not yet been found to be effective.
What do teenagers themselves recommend?
The top 1st recommendation was Leave us kids alone: we know what we're were
The 2nd recommendation was Let us use social networking, but under
The 3rd recommendation was Use social networking as part of the curriculum
The most frequently cited 3 recommendations overall were:
1.Let us use social networking, but under supervision
2.Give lessons in keeping safe online
3.Leave us kids alone: we know what we're were doing
I think that so far the results of most surveys indicate that kids do
not know what they’re doing. This is borne out by another statistic from
Only about a third of the students don’t post any information about
themselves online, and half haven’t posted pictures of themselves.
How important is social networking in your life?
Just over half (52%) said it wasn’t important.
- its is essential to me to keep in touch with my family and my friends who
live in different conutries and to meet other people.
- Because it allows me to talk to people arrange outtings, and find out times
dates and places. Plus i can keep in contact with some people i dont see as
often or have moved away from.
- Social networking is important to me because it is an easy way to comunicate
with my friends outside of school where other people can't allways interfeer
with my conversations. also it is an easy way to keep in touch and talk to
people for free!!
- I use MSN to talk to friends that I have that I rarely see, because they
live in other countries.
- well i dont think social networking is very essential its just a nice thing
to have it is not very important
- i only go on the computer to talk to mates but i also do other things.
- i dont use any social networking and dont plan to as i see them as a waste
of time so it is really not very important in my life.
Unpleasant experiences online
I asked if anyone had had an unpleasant experience online, but made it clear
that they did not have to answer the question, or the follow-up question asking
what had happened. Here were the results:
- I have had creepy people add me on a messenger service after finding my
e-mail off a social networking site. To get rid of them I block and delete them
off the messenger service and block them off the social networking site. I
haven't had much trouble with them after.
- My friend started having a go at me on my website and ruining all my
guestbook so I asked them to stop and told a teacher.
- I answered no But have had arguments with boys i dont know
- not really bad but i just dnt like random people talking to me
- A 26 year old guy said i was pretty and fit, but i didnt think it was
anything, so i tried to forget about him.
- this boy that hacked into my friends msn contacted me telling me that he was
best friends with her he wasn't and then he asked what school i go to and i if
we can meet up and i blocked him and didn't speak to him ever agian and told all
my friends about it so they wouldn't talk to him and they havebn't
- Some wierdo added me on face box, and was a bit pervy and kept asking me
strange questions so in the end i told him to pxxx off and blocked him
Conclusions and recommendations
These arise from my own survey and other sources.
- Teens are not as savvy as they and we might think. They are not able to
fully assess risk, and even when they do assess risk they don’t necessarily
behave accordingly. Therefore schools should do more than scaremongering or
reading the riot act. They should:
- Provide teenagers with practical strategies to help them avoid giving away
- Encourage the use of social networking sites in school in order to train
students in their proper use.
- Ensure that students fully understand that it is not easy to delete all
traces of oneself from a community, because of comments left on other people’s
blogs or profiles.
- Encourage teachers to join online communities for the purpose of CPD. The
school could even have its own Ning community, or similar, for the exchanging of
ideas and resources, and for virtual staff meetings. Taking part in an online
community would help teachers to understand their students’
- Teenagers use social networking sites and similar Social networking sites in
order to do school-related work. Therefore it may be a good idea to encourage
popular social networking sites to provide easily accessible resources that
students could make use of.
- Encourage social networking sites to make deletion of personal data a
one-click operation, or as near to that as possible
My thanks to the pupils who took part and the teachers who encouraged them to
For an updated version of this survey in the near future, please see the forthcoming edition of Computers in Classrooms (November 2007).
If you would like your students to take part in this survey, please email me.