Sunday, July 12, 2009

Young Australians' use of social networking: ACMA report

The Australian Communications and Media Authority has released a Report prepared for it on the use of online social media by young Australians. The report is in two parts:
  • Qualitative Research Report
  • Quantitative Research Report

Some interesting aspects of the Qualitative Report:

The definition of social networking service used by the Report:

'A social networking service (SNS) can be defined as an online social network for communities of people who share interests and activities, or who are interested in exploring the interests or activities of others. As a member of a social networking service, individuals can "chat" with each other via messaging, email, video or voice chat, share photos and videos and post comments in online forums, blogs or discussion groups. Profiles may contain personal information such as real life photos and descriptive comments about the member.'

However, the Report recognised that different names were used for different types of services and no common terminology could be clearly identified.

Importantly, the Report concludes that the Internet is a regular part of the lives of young Australians aged 8 to 17 years and is part of both the home and the school environment. The nature of Internet use and the types of online forums used by children and teenagers changes as children mature, reflecting their social development and their gender. Younger children use the Internet for entertainment preferring game websites, with teenagers reaching out beyond their face to face friendship group to explore new friendships. (For more detail on this see the Quantitative Report)

These differing uses give rise to a range of different risks, both perceived and actual. The Report considered three key areas of risk: content, contact and privacy, which were identified by the EU Kids Online Report. Of these three, it appears from the ACMA Report that the dangers associated with a failure to protect their own privacy poses the most immediate and general risks to users. The notion of protecting their privacy is inconsistent with the desire to use these sites to attract attention ie the 'signalling' or 'waving' behaviour identified by Judith Donath. Further, the Report notes that whilst users may have a 'high awareness of the obvious risks of online use' young people still engage in dangerous behaviour, as '[e]xploring the unknown and pushing the boundaries is a natural part of growing up.'

The Report confirms that a great deal of effort is devoted to the creation and maintenance of online profiles. 'User-generated social networking services' are recognised by the Report as playing a key role in 'teenagers' efforts to conform to group norms and culture, and develop and maintain social currency.'

Interestingly though, the Report notes that parents 'held the view that social networking services were often seen by their children as part of a "fantasy land" where children and young people were either unaware or could easily believe that their interactions did not have real world consequences.' Whilst it may be believable that many parents held this view, I think further in-depth analysis is necessary to confirm that the users themselves hold this view. I also suggest that there could be a big difference here amongst the age-groups and the various online forums they are accessing. The consequences of this belief (where it exists) merits further exploration.

The Report concludes that young Australians are reasonably adept at recognising and managing risk, through a combination of abiding by the advice given to them (predominantly by schools and to a lesser extent parents, whose main authority is derived from the ability to withdraw computer access), commonsense, learning from experience (after encountering a problem online directly or by learning of friends' bad experiences) and finally, resilience. The Report's reflection of the need for young people to encounter and to learn from online experiences is refreshing and grounded in an absence of the hysteria which has frequently attended discussion of these issues in the Australian media. There is also a disconnect over what parents may see as the key risks and those which are actually encountered by users eg online predators.

That said, there is still a need to inform and educate users about the risks they face and, in particular, to warn them about the digital footprint they are creating. Therefore the report makes some key recommendations about future projects to warn and educate users about risks they may face. It makes for interesting reading and a launching place for more work in this area.

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