New Research Contrasts Social Media Experiences of Adults and Teens

An interesting new report was released by the Pew Internet & American Life Project today; researchers Lee Rainie, Amanda Lenhart and Aaron Smith investigated the tone of life on social networking sites with a national survey of online adults in the U.S.

According to the researchers, the overall social and emotional climate of social networking sites (SNS) is a very positive one where adult users get personal rewards and satisfactions at far higher levels than they encounter anti-social people or have ill consequences from their encounters. The study found:


  • 85% of SNS-using adults say that their experience on the sites is that people are mostly kind, compared with 5% who say people they observe on the sites are mostly unkind and another 5% who say their answer depends on the situation.
  • 68% of SNS users said they had an experience that made them feel good about themselves.
  • 61% had experiences that made them feel closer to another person. (Many said they had both experiences.)
  • 39% of SNS-using adults say they frequently see acts of generosity by other SNS users and another 36% say they sometimes see others behaving generously and helpfully. By comparison, 18% of SNS-using adults say they see helpful behavior “only once in a while” and 5% say they never see generosity exhibited by others on social networking sites.

At the same time, notable proportions of SNS users do witness bad behavior on those sites and nearly a third have experienced some negative outcomes from their experiences on social networking sites. Some 49% of SNS-using adults said they have seen mean or cruel behavior displayed by others at least occasionally. And 26% said they had experienced at least one of the bad outcomes that were queried in the survey. Those bad outcomes were:

  • 15% of adult SNS users said they had an experience on the site that ended their friendship with someone.
  • 12% of adult SNS users had an experience that resulted in a face-to-face argument or confrontation with someone.
  • 11% of adult SNS users had an experience on the site that caused a problem with their family.
  • 3% of SNS-using adults said they had gotten into a physical fight with someone based on an experience they had on the site.
  • 3% of adult SNS users said their use of the site had gotten them in trouble at work because of something that happened on the site.
  • In addition, 13% of adult SNS users said that someone had acted in a mean or cruel way towards them on a social networking site in the past 12 months.

Adults are generally more positive and less negative than teens about the behavior of others and their own experiences on social networking sites.
This survey of adults was conducted in order to compare adult experiences on social networking sites to teenagers’ experiences. The Pew Internet Project reported the teen findings in November 2011.

As a rule, more adults than teens reported positive results on SNS. For instance, a higher proportion of adults than teens say their experience is that people are mostly kind on social networking sites. And significantly smaller proportions of adults have had bad outcomes based on their SNS use such as confrontations, lost friendships, family strife, and fights. Overall, the two surveys show that 41% of SNS-using teens have had at least one of the bad experiences we queried, compared with 26% of the SNS-using adults.

The Pew Research Center’s Internet & American Life Project has studied the social atmosphere of the online environment for many years because there is such widespread interest in the impact of the internet on people’s relationships and their interactions with one another. This work has taken on more complexity in recent years because the rise of social networking sites (SNS) like Facebook and LinkedIn has facilitated new kinds of personal connections. In addition, such sites have vastly expanded the number of people who can observe social encounters and post their own comments and reactions to the proceedings.

There is special concern about the social and emotional tone that teenagers encounter on SNS, particularly in light of widespread news coverage of bullying and sexting. So, the Pew Internet Project did an extensive survey of those ages 12-17 and their parents about the social and emotional tone of social networking sites and reported the findings in November 2011. Some of the most noteworthy survey results showed that most teen social networking site users (69%) say their peers are mostly kind to each others on the sites; but that 88% of such site users have witnessed others being mean or cruel at least occasionally. More than three-quarters of SNS-using teens (78%) reported at least one good outcome from their use of the sites and 41% reported at least one negative outcome. And 15% of teens say they themselves have been the target of online meanness. The results reported today round out those findings by describing the adult side of the story, specifically, the social and emotional tone that adults encounter on social networking sites.