About 80% of Russian children have a profile on some kind of social network, according to the Russian Kids Online study, which was conducted in 2010. Russia is ahead of Europe by this indicator, where the share of social network users among children is 60%.
Paradoxically, given this huge involvement of children in virtual communities, their real behaviouron social networks remains virtually unstudied. At the same time, there is a widespread popular opinion that children constantly express themselves on online platforms: change their statuses and photos, look for new contacts, and behave naively, opening themselves up to virtual contacts.
In reality, 70% of school children don’t write any posts about themselves and their lives, revealed Olga Gurkina and Elena Novikova, researchers at the Moscow City University of Psychology and Pedagogics Laboratory of Monitoring Studies, in their paper ‘Use of Virtual Social Networks: Do Modern Teenagers have a Choice?’
These experts say that self-expression and the creative function of social networks are secondary for teenagers. They come to online platforms mostly for practical purposes: to communicate with friends, listen to music, or watch films. And even when they do express their opinions, they do it in a disguised manner: through distributing information which seems interesting to them, and using the ‘like’ function, the experts say.
The study was based on empirical evidence gathered through questionnaires and surveys conducted among tenth-grade students in nine Moscow schools. The total number of participants was 356 people.
The vast majority of teenagers are actively involved in social networks. 72% of them regularly check in to one or two networks (42% and 30% of respondents accordingly). A smaller share of pupils regularly use three or four social networks (15% and 8%). This means that the variety of social networks really attracts only a minority group of teenagers, Gurkina and Novikova emphasize.
The unquestionable leader in popularity among teenagers is the VKontakte social network. 95% of respondents regularly check-in to their page there. This network was chosen as the primary one by 85% of respondents.
Most pupils – 60% – spend up to three hours a day on social networks. 16% of them ‘are virtual’ for less than an hour a day. 44% dedicate from one to three hours to social networks daily.
Out of the remaining 40% of respondents, a half spend from three to five hours on social networks daily, and another half stay on there for more than five hours a day.
Every fifth Russian kid has over 100 friends on a social network, according to the Russian Kids Online study. The older they get, the more friends they have, which shows that communication becomes more intensive. At the same time, the overwhelming majority of pupils – 95% – do not set out to get as many friends and subscribers as they possibly can, Gurkina and Novikova found out.
It turns out that 60% of respondents have up to 100 friends in their main social network. 26% of them have less than 50 friends, and 34% have from 50 to 100 friends.
The remaining 40% of respondents have over 100 friends in their main social network (out of them, 32% – up to 300 friends, and 8% from 301 to 1000 and more).
It is interesting how this data corresponds with the number of friends in real life. Some experts believe that no matter how wide the circle of virtual communication, the number of real friends remains stable (according to Robin Dunbar, a British anthropologist, for adults this limit is 150 people). According to Gurkina and Novikova, 43% of pupils have up to ten friends in real life. 58% have over ten friends. The question is: who are the friends on social networks who are not in the close circle of real friends?
One of the main characteristics of the audience on social networks is knowing the friend in real life. Over half of those tenth-grade pupils who use social networks (67%) know all or almost all of their virtual friends in real life, the authors say. One fifth of respondents know more than half of their virtual friends (21%), and only about 10% know less than a half. In other words, the vast majority of teenagers are not inclined to be virtual friends with people they don’t know in real life.
In addition, teenagers usually visit social networks in order to talk to real friends and people they know – classmates, friends’ friends, and neighbours – 94% of respondents claimed this was true for them.
Only 14% of teenagers often talk to their parents, siblings, or other relatives on social networks. Only 15% of older pupils said that they communicate on social networks with people they don’t know in real life. Such communication takes place in communities of shared interests.
One of the questions asked was why their main social network is attractive to them. 82% answered that most of their friends and people they know are registered on this social network.
This answer can be explained in two ways, the authors added. On one hand, a teenager can have the motive that ‘Most of my friends are on it, why don’t I do it’. On the other hand, communicating can be the key factor: ‘This social network is the most convenient for communicating with most of my friends’. Gurkina and Novikova conclude that ‘in both cases social networks can be seen as a kind of a funnel, where more and more new users are sucked in’.
Teenagers have a utilitarian rather than a creative approach to social networks. Most often social networks are used to listen to or download music and audiobooks (91%), talking to friends (81%), and watching or downloading films (66%). Teenagers also say that they use social networks as a source of information and news about both their friends and global events (43%).
Only one third of teenagers see social networks as a photo gallery.
Incidentally, about the same proportion of teenagers use virtual communities to look for information for their studies. ‘This means that half of the functions used are usually related to consuming contents – entertainment and communication’, Gurkina and Novikova conclude.
Teenagers make almost no use of the function of direct self-expression in social networks, which means notes about themselves (statuses), posting comments and photos. A newer form of expressing opinion is the ‘like’ function, which is often used instead of direct comments. Reposts also allow users to indirectly express opinions. Teenagers look through information, choose something of interest, and share it with their friends. Over one third (36%) of senior pupils add likes and make reposts every day, and another quarter do it several times a week.
Another popular activity is adding music or video: one quarter of respondents do it daily, over one third (36%) once a week, and just one fifth less than once a week.
Commenting is less popular and is used less than once a week, the experts emphasize. 40% of pupils are not inclined to comment in shared interest communities at all, and 22% don’t comment on updates on their friends’ pages.
The least popular activity among teenagers is writing notes about themselves and their lives. Most of them – 69% – don’t do it, and those who do write something about themselves admit that they only do it in exceptional cases.
Teenagers do not tend to create and change statuses. 44% don’t do it at all, and 40% do it very rarely.
Pupils also rarely post photos: one third of respondents do it less than once a week. 39% of them do it extremely rarely, in exceptional cases, and 14% never do it.
So, teenagers use social networks in a rather consistent manner. The norm is to check their profile often and talk only to a close circle of friends. Most of teenagers prefer to ‘distribute information quantitatively rather than add qualitatively new information’, Gurkina and Novikova conclude.