Social Media Studies: Race, Gender, Class, And Teens' Online Behavior

Cyberbullying and online drama are old news. But a new Pew study shows wide disparities across income and race lines in terms of who's doing the bullying—and why teenage girls really love Twitter.

According to a newly released survey, social media services encourage teens to be nicer to their friends but also enable rude behavior towards acquaintances and strangers. The paper from the Pew Internet & American Life project also details another trend: Teens who witness “mean behavior” toward others online are more likely to come from working class, lower-middle class, or African-American households.

In the report, titled "Teens, Kindness and Cruelty on Social Networking Sites," researchers underscored a correlation between race, class, and behavior on social media sites such as Facebook and Formspring. 31% of African-American respondents believed that their peers' interactions with each other on social media were “mostly unkind,” compared to 20% of whites and only 9% of Hispanic respondees. 

Teenage girls, meanwhile, are 7% more likely to report their activity on social media with peers as “mostly unkind”—23% of female respondees chose that option, while only 16% of males characterized themselves the same way.

The Pew Foundation helpfully included an infographic word cloud that respondees used to describe their social media interactions with peers. These words, unsurprisingly enough, were mainly negative.

Researchers Amanda Lenhart, Mary Madden, and Aaron Smith also emphasized the fact that "there are no statistically significant differences by age, gender, race, or socio-economic status (among those who report experiencing mean and cruel behavior - ed). In other words, those who experience mean or cruel behavior are equally as likely to be older teens or younger teens; girls or boys; and youth from higher-income families or those from lower-income families.” Meanwhile, only 56% of African-American respondees said that people their age were mostly kind online, compared to 72% of white and 78% of Hispanic respondees.

The fact that teenagers can engage in cruel behavior online is not particularly novel news. Online harassment has been a hot topic for years; Fast Company has written extensively about cyberbullying and related topics. Increasing digital literacy efforts in schools and legal efforts to curtail cyberharassment among teens have made inroads. However, like any process, there are obstacles: a proposed online harassment bill in Michigan would seemingly open the door to religion-based harassment if the cause is “a sincerely held religious belief or moral conviction.”

There are several hidden reasons for numbers varying across race, gender, and economic class. Social media behavior trends differ across racial lines; African-American teenagers of both genders and female teens of all races are much more likely to use Twitter. Twitter's anarchic nature and short SMS-text based message entry seem particularly well-suited to mean-spirited behavior.

Meanwhile, teens from the lower end of the income spectrum were much more likely to have reported getting in trouble at school because of social media, which perhaps skewed responses given to the survey—parents sat in with respondees during nearly a tenth of the survey-answering sessions.

Another recently released study indicates that parents often aid and abet their children in lying about their ages to social networking sites. A team led by Microsoft Research's Danah Boyd found that parents consistently help their under-13 kids obtain Facebook accounts. Owing to worries about legal liability stemming from both common sense and the Children's Online Privacy Protection Act, Facebook forbids children under the age of 13 from opening accounts. Parents, however, often don't see anything wrong with their pre-teen (or younger) kids having Facebook accounts. With Facebook remaining—by far—the world's preeminent social media site, we're going to have to grow used to seeing teenage arguments mutating online.

[Top Image: Flickr user Goiabarea. Bottom Image Via Pew.]

For more stories like this, follow @fastcompany on Twitter. Email Neal Ungerleider, the author of this article, here or find him on Twitter and Google+.

Correction: An earlier edition of this article incorrectly conflated statistics of teens who had witnessed mean and cruel behavior online with those of teens who had been the victims of cyberbullying. In addition, statistics cited on the family income levels of teens who witnessed mean and cruel behavior online were specifically noted by Pew as statistically insignificant. Fast Company regrets the error.

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