Study into youth online behavior delivers international insights

A new study and paper from Canada's premier digital and media literacy organization, MediaSmarts, offers valuable data on the online behavior of young adults. Though the study targets Canadian youth, the insights have international appeal.

Richard Drew/AP/FILE
In this 2013 file photo, a Twitter app on an iPhone screen is shown.

Before releasing its report on online conflict, MediaSmarts presented a much broader picture of young Canadians’ experiences in social media: “Life Online.” This is important context for any discussion about cyberbullying and other negative aspects of digitally informed life, whether we’re setting policy at the household, school, or national levels.

“There are a lot of assumptions out there about kids online,” wrote Valerie Steeves, the study’s author, “but the labels we use are often misleading and out of step with what young people are actually doing with networked technologies.” So for a reality check, here are some highlights of the digital lives of Canadians in grades 4-11 in every province and territory:

So connected: According to Life Online, just about all (99 percent) of young Canadians can access the Internet outside of school. They do so in various ways – but more with laptops or tablets (62 percent) now than desktop computers (59 percent), and MP3 players are the way a lot of 4th-through-8th-graders use the Internet. Interestingly, 80 percent of French-speaking Canadian students use portable devices to go online versus 67 percent of English-language students. 

Increasingly mobile: Nearly a quarter of 4th-graders (24 percent), half of 7th-graders (52 percent), and 85 percent of 11th-graders have their own cellphones, the report states.

Not so participatory: The report also states that young adults online are “confident and enthusiastic users of networked technology” but more for sociality and information than producing or participating. On the creative side, 38 percent have posted their own stories or artwork, 33 percent video or audio, 22 percent mash-ups, “but only a small number” do this posting regularly. In terms of civic engagement, less than a third "have posted comments on news sites, 50 percent have passed on links to people on news stories ... and just over a third have joined or supported activist groups online.”

Website top picks: A huge diversity of interests is noted in the report – respondents “listed more than 3,000 different favourite websites,” with YouTube (75 percent) at the top for all students. The rest of the Top 10 were Facebook (57 percent), (31 percent), Twitter (24 percent), Tumblr (12 percent), Instagram (10 percent), Minecraft (8 percent), Miniclip (7 percent), Hotmail (6 percent), and Wikipedia (5 percent). The report focused on "websites" and didn't seem to distinguish between traditional websites and mobile apps for the same service.

Activity top picks: Top activities listed in the report included games (59 percent), posting on or reading someone else’s page (52 percent), downloading/streaming media (51 percent), posting on one’s own page (41 percent), posting on Twitter (21 percent), following friends/family on Twitter (21 percent), following celebrities on Twitter (20 percent), and pranking or trolling someone (20 percent). Teens in focus groups used "pranking" and "trolling" to mean "playing tricks or jokes on people" online or on phones, messing with their devices or their heads.

"Underage" socializing: Nearly two-thirds of 4th-through-6th-graders reported having a Facebook account, and 16 percent of them have Twitter accounts.

Online safety: The report states that students are generally aware of the potential risks of Internet use and are confident in their ability to handle them. Feeling safe "grows with age, from a low of 50% in grades 4 and 7 to a high of 66% in grade 11."

Household Internet rules: Of those studied, 84 percent of students have at least one Internet-related rule at home, and those who do are "less likely to engage in activities that adults consider risky." Interestingly, the percentage of household rules about online activities declined dramatically from 2005 to 2013, "most notably in rules relating to meeting online acquaintances in person (30% fewer students have rules on this) and sites you are not supposed to visit (28% fewer students have rules on this)." Girls are more likely to have them than boys, so their Internet use is more regulated than boys’.

Unplugging: To young people’s credit (credit they seldom receive), according to the report, 94 percent “choose to go offline to do other things like spending more time with friends or family, enjoying some quiet time by themselves or going outside.” On the other hand, 35 percent of teens with cellphones “sleep with them in case they get calls or messages during the night,” and the percentage increases with age – so 20 percent of 4th-graders do so and just over half of 11th-graders do. The report states, “Although one-third of students worry that they spend too much time online, only half say they would be upset or unhappy if they had to unplug for a week.” 

The Christian Science Monitor has assembled a diverse group of the best family and parenting bloggers out there. Our contributing and guest bloggers are not employed or directed by the Monitor, and the views expressed are the bloggers' own, as is responsibility for the content of their blogs. Anne Collier blogs at NetFamilyNews.

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