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Emotional Climate Change

Flashy newspaper headlines drive clicks but they can also mislead readers.

The Pew Research Center’s Internet & American Life Project just released a study of teens’ use of social networks.  It was a joint project with the Family Online Safety Institute (FOSI), who featured the study at their annual conference in Washington.  Like all of Pew’s work, this study provides a deeply nuanced view of the subject, breaking down behaviors and identifying emerging trends.

At the FOSI conference yesterday, I thanked Pew for helping to describe what they call the “emotional climate” for teens using social networking.   But the media wants to write headlines about “emotional climate change” when it comes to meanness among teens – and then blame it on the Internet.

For example, the Washington Post led its story on the Pew report with this attention-grabber:

There’s something about the Internet that can bring out the meanness in teenagers.

That statement is nominally based on Pew’s finding that 9 out of 10 teens have witnessed bullying on social networks.  While that is a splashy stat, it is balanced in the report (but not in the Post) by the finding that teens encounter far more bullying in person and in texting than they see online.

19% of teens report they have been bullied in the last year in these ways:

  • 12% report being bullied in person
  • 9% report being bullied via text message
  • 8% say they have experienced some form of online bullying
  • 7% say they have been bullied by voice phone calls

Now, any kind of bullying is a concern, no matter where it happens.  But, social networks provide socially marginalized teens a way to gather with like-minded friends.  And social networks are supporting the inspiring “it gets better” campaign for troubled teens.

Pew’s Amanda Lenhart shared my concern about the Post’s bizarre take on their findings.  Amanda said, “It’s unfortunate that it was framed that way in the media,” adding “it’s not fair to say that social media is causing more meanness.”

For a balanced view of how kids and parents are actually navigating the emerging world of social networking, I strongly suggest going to the original study.  In it, you’ll learn that:

  • 88% of teens see cruel behavior online infrequently
  • 80% of teens have defended a victim of online bullying
  • 80% of teens were online friends with their parents

Media reports could just as well lead with, “There’s something about the Internet that brings out thoughtfulness and friendship in teenagers.”  And there are plenty of findings in the Pew study that indicate social networks are cultivating positive changes in the emotional climate for teens.

Unfortunately for social networks, positive climate change doesn’t make the news.