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Middle School Students Use of Online Social Networks

Case Study
May 11, 2007
Gary Coyle
Contact e-mail: gcoyle@aes.ac.in

Introduction

Middle school students have always been social creatures. Whether passing notes in
class, tying up their cellphone for hours, or hanging out at the mall with friends,
students aged 11-14 have an intense need to be part of a peer group. The explosion of
online social networking, which for the purpose of this case study will be defined as
blogs and social networking websites such as MySpace and Xanga, has been fully
embraced by middle school students as a way to build identity, form peer groups and
stay in close contact with one another.

Usage of online social networks is staggering; MySpace alone boasts over 100 million
profiles with 230,000 new accounts created daily (Andrews 2006). Of those registered
it is unclear how many are middle school users, as the terms of service of most online
social networks restrict membership to those over age 14. However, this does not
deter usage by underage users, as children can misrepresent their ages to bypass the
restrictions. Based on the number of underage accounts deleted each week, best
estimates show that 3% of MySpace account holders alone are under 14 (Lim 2006).
Given this strong base of usage it is important for both parents and educators alike to
understand the motivation for use and usage patterns of online social network among
middle school students.

Research Purpose

The purpose of this case study is to explore the use of online social networks among
middle school students. It was developed to determine the usage characteristics,
rationale for use, and online confidentiality standard of middle school aged online
social network users.

Impact of Literature Review

A literature review was conducted to examine existing reports on the motivation
among middle school students for using online social networks and to investigate
online safety issues revolving around middle school students’ use of online social
networks. Young adolescents have grown up in a wired culture. Since they are as Marc
Prensky termed, “Digital Natives”, they speak the language of the internet easily and
eagerly embrace new technologies (Mee 2006). According to statistics from the Pew
Internet and American Life Project, 87% of all youth between 12 and 17 use the
internet on a regular basis. Of these, 57% contribute writing, photos, videos, music
and artwork via social networks (Lamb and Johnson 2006). It is no wonder that for
two key reasons middle school students have jumped on the social networking
bandwagon at this rapid rate.

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personal photographs. plays on words or emoticons that replace text altogether (Calvert and Huffaker 2005). social networks allow them to be part of the crowd and see what is happening in their world. for a shy child or one who has trouble expressing himself or herself an online social network can be a positive outlet and allow for more comfortable social interactions (Andrews 2006). Anastasia Goodstein writes. While 60% offered their location and contact information (Sullivan 2005). They snatch images from other pages and modify colors and fonts all in order to create a place that reflects who they are (Zeller 2006). They post videos. online social networks allow for young adolescents to develop a sense of belonging and serve as a point of contact for other likeminded friends. Teens and tweens (children aged 8-12) crave relationships and these can be nurtured through the comment and rating systems on social networking websites. Users often create or modify language to serve their purposes. music.First. assert Annette Lamb and Larry Johnson. A second and perhaps more important reason young adolescents gravitate toward online social networks is to create a sense of identity. social networking websites allow users to create a place that they can customize to reflect their identity. Moreover. The development of young adolescent identity is particularly important because they are coming to know and define themselves in ways they could not as children (Calvert and Huffaker 2005). Furthermore. This is often referred to as Netspeak and may include acronyms. Additionally 55% of teen users have created profiles on their social networking website. knowing they may receive validation through a comment or response (Mee 2006). Many young adolescent users of social networking websites spend hours per week creating online content to tweak the appearance of their MySpace or Xanga spaces. The Children’s Digital Media Center at Georgetown found that two-thirds of teen users provided their age and at least their first name. 2007). By accessing online social networks predators know about victims and their friends and they know how to leverage this information against them (Cohen 2006). In addition. though it is unclear how many are available for public viewing (D.L. they go on to explain that since children this age want to be the center of attention. games. Online social networks encourage identity development in several ways. What this means is that kids are exposing themselves to potential predators and at putting themselves at 2 .W. These sites also serve as a way to stay in almost constant contact and not miss out on something (Lamb and Johnson 2006). The rapid adoption of online social networks by young adolescents brings with it a concern for these children’s safety and development. According to a 2003 study by The Perseus Development Corporation half of all blogs are authored by teens. “… at this stage they’re constantly looking for that affirmation and validation and response for everything they are. and online social networks allow them to share their ideas and concerns with others. online social networks provide users a place to post their private writings. This idea of creating a sense of belonging can be enhanced when users share a common interest such as music or video clips. Perhaps most importantly. but not the impact and effect of the application (Lloyd 2007). Young adolescents seem to be braver when interacting online as they seem to understand the technology. Users like to have their voices heard. and lists of personal likes and dislikes which all help to shape ones identity (Lamb and Johnson 2006).” She goes on to say that because of this online social networking sites are a great way for users to find others who share common music or video interests and form new friendships based on these (McDermott 2006). As a result young adolescents seem more willing to divulge personal information making them attractive targets for online predators.

India. However. and standard of online safety. It is this intersection of private and public persona that many young adolescents find challenging to manage appropriately. as an email was sent to each teacher requesting permission to have his/her students complete the online survey for this study. These students were selected because they represented a random cross section of expatriate children from six continents who demonstrated a high level of technology awareness. The data collected for the case study was primarily subjective. Tabor’s seventh grade humanities classes.risk for identity theft. that they would not attempt offline (Sullivan 2005). as information gathered was self-reported by middle school students on their usage patterns. Additionally with essentially no monitoring. but they really have no idea. Social networks can create an atmosphere where users try to out do one another in what may be termed “mediated exhibitionism” (Read and Fischer 2006). Instrument A twelve-item survey was developed in Survey Monkey. Nancy McBride from the Center for Missing & Exploited Children explains. rationale for use. Maher’s sixth grade humanities classes. and 24 came from Mr.surveymonkey. As participation was voluntary. Contextual Factors As the terms of service on most online social networks restrict access for users in the 11-14 age demographic.” (Cohen 2006) Finally. Although most social networking sites such as MySpace require members to be at least 14 years old many users simply lie about their age to gain access (Andrews 2006). there is concern that the secrecy of online social networks may negatively affect young adolescents’ development. motivation for student use and the online safety of students warranted further research. 32 students came from Ms. The survey was organized into four sections. Coyle’s humanities classes at the American Embassy School in New Delhi. “Kids think they are sharing information with other kids. 3 . due to time and resource constraints only a small number of middle school students were analyzed for this case study. Given the proliferation of usage of online social networks by middle school students and the potential for this technology to be used in the classroom. such as posting provocative comments and images. These underage users are then engaging in or exposed to things. Subjects were selected indirectly. thus a survey of middle school users was developed. 34 students came from Ms. the students represented a random sample of middle school students. a content analysis of member sites would be nearly impossible. children can egg each other on regarding serious issues such as substance use and sexual activity. Participants Participants included 90 students.com/ . an online survey generator http://www.

subjects were recruited via direct solicitation by the survey author via e-mail to the classroom teacher. class in school. should they have additional questions about the study itself or how results would be used. however all continents were represented (Figure 1).6 years old. They were also given the survey author’s contact information. 4) Section four focused on online confidentiality. That email explained the survey’s purpose and the researcher’s intent. Interestingly. it should be noted that according to its terms of service MySpace prohibits users under the age of 14 from having an account. Collecting Data As earlier noted. Of 104 potential respondents. respondents were asked to indicate their frequency of usage using a six-point response set that ranged from More than once a day (1) to Less than once a week (6). 4 . students had as much time as they wanted to complete the survey with the majority completing it in less than fifteen minutes. age. Europeans and North Americans were the majority of respondents. Additionally. Classroom teachers were given a two week window to complete the survey. 3) Section three focused on rationale for usage. 90 students (49 girls and 41 boys) completed the survey for a response rate of 86 %. Subjects were asked to choose their gender. 2) Section two focused on usage characteristics. Within the class period. and continent of origin so that the data could be analyzed in a variety of ways. In addition the average age of the respondent was 12. Survey subjects were also asked to indicate the types of information they post to their online social networking site using a check box. Subjects were asked to indicate whether several of their personal identifiers were available for public view and whether their parents were aware of their use of online social networks by indicating yes. no or not sure. which was taken by students during a humanities class with the teacher present to provide assistance if needed. Findings Respondent Demographics The demographic profile of the respondents broke down as follows. Subjects were asked to gauge their familiarity with 9 common social networking sites. Subjects were asked for their perceptions of why they use an online social network using a 5-point response set that ranged from Not important (1) to Very important (5). Survey subjects were informed of the voluntary nature of their participation and assured confidentiality. They also indicated the number of friends they have linked to their online social networking site. using a 4-point response set that ranged from Have an account (1) to Not aware of this site (4). 1) Section one focused on user demographics.

the online social networking site with the largest number of account holders among middle school students is online behemoth MySpace which claims in excess of one hundred million members (Figure 2). Second. In addition 16. First. the use of online social networks is endemic among respondents. was the fact that a majority of those surveyed were not aware of most online social networking sites beyond the two largest.7% (15 out of 90) maintain more than one account. and illustrating the nature of middle schoolers to follow the pack.5% (77 out of 90) of students surveyed maintain an account with an online social networking site. However more interesting. as current literature indicates. 5 . Respondents' Continent of Origin (Figure 1) North 2% America 7% South America 33% Europe 22% Asia Australia Africa 1% 35% Usage Characteristics Analysis of the usage patterns of surveyed middle school students yielded several interesting findings. MySpace and Facebook (Figure 3). mirroring the blogosphere itself. 85.

including 18. Middle school students are erratic users of online social networks. 6 . analysis of students’ usage patterns revealed some interesting trends. as the distribution across the range of choices showed a variety of frequencies of use. Middle School Social Networking Accounts (Figure 2) Imbee CyWorld Live Journal Xanga Bebo Hi5 Tagged Facebook MySpace 0 10 20 30 40 50 Number of Account Holders Lack of Awareness of Social Networking Sites (Figure 3) Imbee CyWorld Live Journal Xanga Bebo Hi5 Tagged Facebook MySpace 0 10 20 30 40 50 60 70 80 90 Number of Unaware Students Third. While the largest number of students surveyed (19 out of 77) checked their accounts once a day.7% (14 out of 77) checking less than once a week (Figure 4). there was no clear frequency of usage pattern.

Frequency of Checking Online Social Network Accounts (Figure 4) Less than once a week 1-2 times per week 3-4 times per week 5-6 times per week Once a day More than once a day 0 5 10 15 20 Number of Students Trends for modifying the content of online social networking sites revealed even lighter frequency with 48. Frequency of Modification (Figure 5) Less than once a week 1-2 times per week 3-4 times per week 5-6 times per week Once a day More than once a day 0 5 10 15 20 25 30 35 40 Number of Students 7 .7% of respondents (37 out of 76)altering their social networking presences less than once a week and no one modifying theirs more than once per day(Figure 5).

4% Blurbs 11% Rationale for Usage Students’ rationale for using an online social networking website revealed two key findings.6% Surveys or survey answers 45.9% Picture Comments 61.1% Other video 38. Table 1: Items Posted on Middle School Students Social Networking Sites I t e m P o s t e d % of Respondents Music 79. Second. As adolescence is time of defining gender roles and experimenting with romantic relationships. In addition other images such as those found on other websites. flirting was a statistically insignificant reason for using an online social networking site. and photographs of themselves or friends were all mentioned a significant number of times (Table 1). it was surprising that making new friends was statistically less significant than many other reasons for use.5% Personal writings 41. However since the common perception is that online social networks facilitate forming online friendships.4% Details 31.2% Games 43. lists of interests. Additionally. with 58 respondents posting it to their site.5% Other images 74% Interests 74% Photographs of yourself or friends 69. the potential anonymity of the web would seem to be a conducive environment to flirt.8% Videos of yourself or friends 20.8% Bulletins 42.5% Personal information 28. the survey revealed that 56% of those surveyed linked fewer than fifty friends to their site and the largest percentage linked fewer than twenty five (Figure 7). the mean scores of those surveyed indicated that the main reasons for their use are to stay connected with friends that have moved and to reinforce existing friendships (Figure 6). First.5% Contact Info 16. 8 .Finally in terms of usage characteristics. the survey data revealed music was the most common item posted. As the average term of enrollment at The American Embassy School – New Delhi is three years it is no surprise that online social networks allow transient expatriate children to stay connected with friends while also helping to establish new face to face friendships.

the survey revealed that middle school online social network users are fairly cautious about divulging personal information and that their parents are quite aware of their use of these sites. Rationale for Using an Online Social Networking Website (Figure 6) 4.5 Have a place of your own on the internet 3 Make new friends 2. In terms of displaying profile information the majority of users reported that their profiles were not available for public view (Figure 8).5 Share ideas such as writing photos or art work with others 2 Learn about new music 1.5 Reinforce existing friendships 1 Stay connected with friends that have moved 0. 70% and 69% 9 .5 0 Mean Response Score Number of Friends Linked to Social Networking Websites (Figure 7) 16% 0-25 30% 26-50 8% 51-75 76-100 >100 18% 28% Online Confidentiality Contrary to public perception. In addition while 58% did display their real first name the majority did not display their real surname. age or location (69%.5 4 Flirt 3.

but only 32% reported that their parents had actually visited their site. The Pew Internet and American Life Project’s findings were clearly supported with the survey showing that the majority of middle school students (85%) use the internet to access online social networks. While The Children’s Digital Media Center at Georgetown indicated that 60% of users volunteered their first names. most middle school students 10 . ages. photographs and comments. online social networks are an important part of middle school students’ lives as a vast majority of those surveyed are active account holders. this study’s finding indicated a much more cautious user.respectively). Moreover 86% of respondents reported that their parents were aware that they had an online social networking presence. Additionally. In conclusion. In terms of usage the case study supported most major findings regarding adolescents’ use of online social networks. to their sites in an effort to make their space their own. Their frequency of use however is erratic and the updating of the content on their sites infrequent. The case study however contradicted findings regarding the standard of online safety that middle school users abide by. images. The case study also confirmed Calvert and Huffaker’s findings that online social network users build identity by posting a variety of content. Is your profile on your social networking website visible for anyone to view? (Figure 8) 21% 21% Yes No Not Sure 58% Discussion and Conclusions Key findings of this case study both support and refute elements of the literature review. and locations. except for divulging their first names. most commonly music.

2007. Jun 21).L. Mee. It's the coolest hangout space for teens-but parents might be suprised what their kids do there. 2007. the value of applying the findings to a wider audience in the United States is not appropriate due to a variety of cultural. [25(12)]. Gender. Moreover a large majority of respondents’ parents were aware of their online social networking activities Finally. Retrieved Feb 2. April). A and Johnson. Lamb. Retrieved Feb 2. 55-59. Toronto Star. 10(2). Cohen. {34(1). Nov 28). 22-26. U.jrn. 18. AIMS: Association of Illinois Middle Schools. 12. I Need MySpace. from EBSCO. D.columbia. L. In terms of further analysis the data could be disaggregated to look at differences between male and female users.edu/images/On%20Target%20Feb%2006%20ToBlog. A (2006. Searcher. from EBSCO. References Andrews.. School Library Journal. Meisan (2006. Sep 18). 2007. 2007. Retrieved Feb 2. Want to be my "friend"? What you need to know about social technologies. Feb).pdf 11 .and Huffaker.(2005). Teens reap what they sow on the Net. from Columbia News Service Web site: http://jscms. from ProQuest. Teens Don't Reveal Personal Info Online. 2007. Retrieved Feb 21. Feb 16). Retrieved Feb 2. I (2006. McDermott. from To Blog or Not to Blog Web site: http://www. 2007. economic. Calvert S.aims. from ProQuest. 2007. Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication.W. D (2007. Do You Know Where Your Kids are Clicking?. [53(2)]. C (2006. [14(4)]. and situational factors. Identity and Language Use in Teenage Blogs.L . (2006. 2 2007. Oct).S. Teacher Librarian.uiuc. Retrieved Feb 21. (2007. Feb). and users from different locations of origin.surveyed disclose little other personal information. Retrieved Feb. M (2006. [141(10)]. D. users of different ages. Decoding MySpace. Further study could focus on expanding those surveyed to other international schools to see if the findings hold true in a larger sample or replicating the survey in American middle schools for comparison.edu/cns/2006-11-28/lim-cybersafetyimproved/ Lloyd. PC Magazine. Keeping the underaged off the Web and out of harm's way. Retrieved March 12. Lim. from ProQuest. News and World Report. 46-48. while the findings of this study provide a snapshot of middle school students in an international school. from ProQuest.

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