2010 National Psychology Week research project

Online social networking has proliferated as a communication tool. For many people it has become an integral part of daily life offering new and varied ways of communicating with others. Both positive and negative outcomes have been reported from involvement in online social networking, although recent studies indicate that internet communications may supplement traditional social behaviour rather than increase or decrease it.

Increasingly, studies are indicating that social networking has a positive impact on social connectedness and wellbeing (Valkenburg & Peter, 2009; Ofcom, 2008). However, negatives are evident (Cross et al., 2009), with much media attention focused on the ‘dangers’ of online social networking such as bullying and inappropriate use of personal information.

The 2010 National Psychology Week (NPW) research project sought to explore the social and psychological impact of online social networking in Australian adults with a focus on:

  1. patterns of online social networking across age and level of sociability;
  2. the effects of use of online social networking on face-to-face relationships and social connectedness; and
  3. the negative impacts of online social networking.

This article presents the findings of the research project, which generated a large amount of attention during this year’s National Psychology Week. A set of tips to promote positive online social networking were developed to accompany the media release about the NPW survey findings.

The APS survey media release was picked up all around Australia and internationally online, and reached more than 2.3 million people in Australia alone through the print media. International publications online that featured the story included The Epoch Times (US), The Cambodia Times, The Japan Herald, The Times of India, India News, The India Times and L’Unita (Italy).

Twelve radio interviews to expand on the survey findings were conducted, including one for Auckland Breakfast Radio and one for Irish evening radio. A range of other organisations have contacted the APS requesting information about the research project, including the Department of Justice (Vic) and the Australian Communications and Media Authority.

Key survey findings

  • Online social networking is being used by people across the age range
  • 70% of survey respondents report spending less than two hours a day on sites
  • 28% have had a ‘bad experience’ using social networking sites
  • 53% feel social networking has increased contact with friends and family
  • 26% report increased participation in social activities as a result
  • Patterns of ‘sociability’ that occur in real life appear to be replicated online
  • 25% of 31–50 year old respondents have had a date with someone met online
  • 21% of these have gone on to form an intimate relationship

Survey method

An online survey was developed and targeted both users and nonusers of online social networking sites. Completion of the survey involved responding to questions using likert-type scales, including the Cheek and Buss (1981) Sociability and Shyness Scale, and providing open-ended responses to questions.

The survey was distributed to the Australian public through advertisements on social networking sites and in local newspapers, and through the use of a ‘snowballing’ approach using email distribution. Recruitment of participants was not stratified, hence the sample may not be representative of the general population.

Participant demographics

A total of 1,834 Australians responded to the survey. Fourteen per cent of survey respondents were male (n = 256) and 73 per cent were female (n = 1,344). Thirteen per cent of respondents did not disclose their gender.

As shown in Table 1 there was a good spread across the age ranges, with the highest percentage in the 18 to 30 age group. Thirty-four per cent of participants identified themselves as single and 43 per cent were married or had a life partner.

The greatest number of respondents were employed full-time (41%), followed by part-time/casual workers (18%) and full-time students (17%). The remaining participants were home makers (5%), part-time students not working elsewhere (3%), not currently employed (3%) and retired (2%).

With regards to the location of participants, the majority of participants were located in major cities around Australia (74%), a further 17 per cent were from inner regional areas, seven per cent from outer regional Australia, and a small proportion from remote and very remote areas (2%). This is generally indicative of the population distribution according to remoteness as reported by the Australian Bureau of Statistics.

Table 1. Age range of survey participants
Age range n %
Young adults (18–30 years)
Adults (31–50 years) 629 34%
Adults (51–80 years) 245 14%
Unknown 224 12%
Total 1,834 100%

Use of social networking sites across the age range

There is no doubt that young people are often more eager about embracing new technologies than adults and become highly skilled very quickly. They are also more vulnerable and less inhibited in their communication than adults and therefore may become exposed to risks.

The use of social networking sites has been the focus of a large number of research studies. The NPW research project aimed to investigate the use of social networking sites across the age range. Eighty-six per cent of survey participants reported that they currently use online social networking sites.

A breakdown of users and non-users by age group is presented in Figure 1. The findings indicate that almost all of the young adults who completed this survey (97%) were accessing online social networking sites.

However, a large number of adults aged 31 to 50 years (81%) and 64 per cent of adults over 50 also reported using these sites. In identifying those social networking sites that participants used the most, an overwhelming majority of respondents reported using Facebook (95%).

 Smaller numbers of participants were using sites like Twitter (2%), RSVP (1%) and Windows Live Spaces (1%). There was little variation on the sites used across the age groups, with Facebook being the primary online social networking site across all ages.

There was a decrease in the number of online friends with increasing age, with those aged below 30 reporting an average 263 friends, those aged 31 to 50 reporting an average 206 friends, and those over 50 having an average of 92 friends (the average overall was reported as 205 friends).

A total of 252 participants reported they did not currently use online social networking sites and the majority of those were over 50 years of age (36%). Of the non-users, 29 per cent reported previously using online social networking sites. The main reasons for withdrawal from online social networking were a loss of interest (43%), having better things to do with their time (38%) and preferring to speak with people directly (33%).

Only a small number reported that they stopped using online social networking because of a ‘bad experience’ (9%). Participants not accessing social networking sites remained concerned about the negative impact of online social networking, with almost half (49%) of previous users indicating that they had been concerned about access to their personal information.

Frequency of online social networking use

The research project also sought to investigate popular concerns about excessive use of social networking sites, particularly among younger users. The survey indicated that the frequency of access to online social networking sites was high.

A large proportion of respondents (77%) indicated that they were logging onto social networking sites daily: 51 per cent reported logging on several times a day and 26 per cent about once a day. Across the age groups, young adults were accessing social networking sites most often, with 59 per cent of young adults reporting logging on to these sites more than once a day when compared with 36 per cent for adults aged 31 to 50 and 23 per cent for adults over 50.

It is worth noting, however, that 42 per cent of respondents reported that they tend to spend less than one hour on these sites each day and 70 per cent spending less than two hours a day. These figures are comparable to findings in studies of adolescents in the UK and USA (McGrath & Van Vugt, 2009) and suggest that time spent on online social networking sites may not be significantly different for adolescents and young adults.

As with the frequency of logging on, there was a decrease in time spent on these sites with age. The older participants reported spending less than an hour online per day while the younger adults were more likely to report spending less than two hours.

Negative experiences from online social networking There has been significant interest and concern about the risks of online social networking because of access to personal information and the anonymity that the system allows. A number of public cases of bullying and identity theft have put this issue in the public arena. The NPW research therefore sought to investigate the incidence of negative experiences in social networking.

A considerable number of survey respondents (28%) reported having had a negative online experience, with 60 per cent of those aged below 30 most likely to report this. These participants were asked to provide further information about the negative experience.

For most respondents the experience reflected unwanted contact or other people posting inappropriate or upsetting information about them online. Some respondents specified having experienced online bullying and provided examples such as abusive messages and harassment from someone of the opposite sex.

Although research into young people reports varying rates of bullying across ages and is based on different definitions of bullying, the results for adults participating in the NPW survey are not very different from the findings for young people.

However, it should be noted that in the current survey participants were asked to identify a bad experience rather than bullying per se. If the survey had asked specifically about bullying this may have led to different results.

Negative experiences from online social networking

There has been significant interest and concern about the risks of online social networking because of access to personal information and the anonymity that the system allows. A number of public cases of bullying and identity theft have put this issue in the public arena. The NPW research therefore sought to investigate the incidence of negative experiences in social networking.

A considerable number of survey respondents (28%) reported having had a negative online experience, with 60 per cent of those aged below 30 most likely to report this. These participants were asked to provide further information about the negative experience.

For most respondents the experience reflected unwanted contact or other people posting inappropriate or upsetting information about them online. Some respondents specified having experienced online bullying and provided examples such as abusive messages and harassment from someone of the opposite sex.

Although research into young people reports varying rates of bullying across ages and is based on different definitions of bullying, the results for adults participating in the NPW survey are not very different from the findings for young people.

However, it should be noted that in the current survey participants were asked to identify a bad experience rather than bullying per se. If the survey had asked specifically about bullying this may have led to different results.

An interesting outcome of the survey was that when participants provided information about bad experiences many also indicated how they managed the experience, such as blocking the person from contacting them, indicating that the experience had led them to consider ways to avoid such occurrences in future.

Social connectedness

Participants were asked their reasons for accessing online social networking sites and responses are presented in Table 2. Most participants identified a range of reasons, with those most frequently endorsed being about connecting with friends and family. ‘Other’ reasons for using social networking sites included ‘checking up on kids’, ‘getting invites to events’ and a common theme of using networking sites for business, promotion and professional networking.

The survey results were positive when looking at the impact of online social networking on social relationships. A large proportion of respondents (53%) felt that online social networking allowed them to be in contact with people more regularly, and for 79 per cent of survey participants it helped them to keep in touch with people who live far away.

Twenty-six per cent of respondents stated that they attend more social events when compared to before they were using social networking sites, suggesting that the use of online social networking sites increases both online and face-toface social interactions. Open-ended responses from participants supported the convenience of online social networking as a communication tool for sharing information, making meeting or event arrangements, and staying in touch with people that they may not otherwise contact (e.g., by phone or face-to-face).

It is interesting to note that more than half of respondents aged 18 to 30 years felt they would lose contact with many of their friends if they stopped using online social networking (52%). This was less of a concern for the over 50 age group, with only 26 per cent of this group concerned about losing friendships.

With regards to contact with family, over a quarter of respondents believed that they would lose contact with some family members if they ceased using social networking sites. Respondents were asked about their preference for online communication when compared to face-to-face interactions.

The majority of respondents reported that they preferred to communicate with people in person rather than using online social networking sites (54%, with 25% neutral on this matter), suggesting that people are not necessarily moving away from faceto- face interactions but perhaps using online social networking to enhance their in-person communications.

Curiously, the same number of respondents reported feeling more confident socialising online than in person (54%, with 15% neutral) while a small number of participants (8%) indicated that they felt they were treated better online than in face-to-face relationships.

Table 2. Responses* to the question: ‘For what purpose(s) do you use social networking sites?’
Use n %
Keeping in touch with friends 1,387 88%
Finding out what other people are doing 948 60%
Keeping in touch with family 908 58%
Tracking down and contacting new friends 804 51%
General chatting with others 788 50%
Posting photos of myself or others 782 50%
Sharing information online with others 742 47%
Telling others what I’ve been doing 701 44%
Inviting people to an event 625 40%
Making arrangements to meet someone 487 31%
Playing networking games 393 25%
Making new friends 289 18%
Other 86 5%

*Participants were able to provide more than one response.

Shyness and sociability

Previous research has indicated that the online format of social networking promotes social interactions for those who find socialising difficult. A scale of sociability and shyness was therefore used in the NPW research to investigate whether these characteristics had an impact on the use of online social networking sites.

The scale was a self-report measure of sociability and shyness (Cheek & Buss, 1981). Scores on this scale demonstrated that participants were largely categorised as having a moderate level of shyness and sociability, with small numbers of people falling into the low and high categories.

These findings indicate that people using online social networking are more likely to be those that rate themselves as having moderate levels of shyness and sociability, suggesting individuals who are likely to be competent socially, have already well-developed friendship networks prior to joining online networks, and develop new friends easily.

Further investigation of the relationship between levels of sociability and time spent on social networking sites showed that as sociability increased, time spent using social networking sites increased.

This provides further support to the notion that patterns of face-to-face communication are replicated in the online environment. This is consistent with what sociologists describe as a social network theory, a theory based on the view that it is the relationships between people that will have an impact on patterns of social networking regardless of the mode of communication.

Forming romantic relationships online

A number of social networking sites focus on connecting people who are interested in forming romantic relationships. In this survey, use of websites such as RSVP was reported to be small (9.5%), with the highest rate of participation on these sites being in adults over 50 years.

In addition to identifying any accessing of sites that aim to promote romantic relationships, respondents were asked whether they have had a date with someone they met online. In contrast to results that show that older adults are more likely to use RSVP, it was those in the 31 to 50 year age group (25%) that were most likely to report having dated someone they met online (21% of participants overall), even though they were not specifically using a site set up for this purpose.

Twenty-one per cent of these went on to form an ongoing intimate relationship with someone that they met online. Those participants younger than 30 years and those older than 50 years were less likely to date someone they met online (17% and 13% respectively). Of those dating someone met on a social networking site, 15 and13 per cent respectively went on to form an ongoing intimate relationship.

Of interest with regard to relationships was that 16 per cent of participants stated that they have used a social networking site to tell someone something that they felt was too difficult to say to them face-to-face, with the largest proportion of these respondents being in the younger age group (77%).

When asked to describe the situation, the most common examples were ‘breaking up with someone’, ‘asking someone on a date’ and ‘telling a friend they had hurt me’. In addition, participants described the online format as allowing them to convey difficult information such as discussing a debt. These examples are consistent with the affirmative response to the item ‘I feel more confident socialising online than face-to-face’.

Summary

According to the results of this survey, the online social networking environment is largely having positive effects on people’s relationships and is increasing social connections.

Results showed the use of online social networking as a widespread communication tool across all age groups, with the highest users being young adults. The current survey indicates that people are primarily using online social networking, in particular Facebook, to keep in touch with family and friends.

This has led to increased contact with them both online and in person, and some respondents believed that ceasing online social networking would lead to them losing contact with some family and friends. A considerable proportion of participants reported having negative experiences online, primarily citing unwanted contact, inappropriate use of their personal information and bullying as the cause of the negative incident.

However, many of these participants reported strategies that they had used to deal with the negative experience and to regulate their online environment to prevent further difficulties.


Dr Rebecca Mathews MAPS, Manager, Practice Standards and Resources and Fiona Cameron, Research Assistant National Office

The tips to promote positive online social networking can be accessed from the APS website: Tips for positive online social networking

References

Cheek, J.M., & Buss, A.H. (1981). Shyness and sociability. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 41, 330-339.

Cross, D. et al. (2009). Australian covert bullying prevalence study. Perth: Edith Cowan University.

McGrath, H., & Van Vugt, J. (2009). Young people and technology: A review of the current literature (2nd edition). Melbourne: Alannah and Madeline Foundation.

Ofcom. (2008). Social networking: A quantitative and qualitative research report into attitudes, behaviours and use. Retrieved 28/10/10 from stakeholders.ofcom.org.uk/binaries/research/media-literacy/ report1.pdf

Valkenburg, P. M. & Peter, J. (2009). Social consequences of the internet for adolescents: A decade of research. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 18, 1-5.