Benefits of social networking websites for young people

Bachelor Thesis 2014 35 Pages

Sociology - Children and Youth








Appendix A - Glossary of Key Terms



The use of social networking sites (SNS) has been adopted and integrated into the daily lives of an increasing number of adolescents and young people overall are amongst its most prolific and substantial users. This study discuss a number of issues related to the use of social media and social networking sites such as; why do young people mass to such sites? What do young people express on these SNS? And lastly, how do these sites enhance or fit into the lives of young people? Much has been said regarding the risk management paradigm with regards to social media use by young people therefore this study attempts to readdress this imbalance and focus on the perceived benefits; however it did not ignore the potential contents and contact risk which was also explored. This study found that there are a number of significant benefits associated with the use of SNS including: enhanced learning opportunities; facilitating supportive relationships; identity formation; not to mention its contribution towards the emotional, psychological and social wellbeing of young people.


(NB. A glossary of terms used in this study is presented in Appendix A to assist the reader.)

In recent years, online social networking Sites (SNS) have become integrated into our everyday lives and young people in particular are amongst it’s most prolific and substantial users (Boyd 2010). Recent studies (Madden et al., 2013) have found that 95 % of young people (aged 12 to 17) use the internet and 81 % are users of social network sites. According to The Pew Research Center's Internet & American Life Teen-Parent survey, (2012) Facebook secured 94 % of all social media networking teens, Twitter 26% and Instagram 11%.

Based on this prevalent use, SNS and in particular Facebook ( which by the end of 2013, reported to have 1.23 billion users – Kiss (2014) ) have potentially significant implications on the daily lives of adolescents and raises some very important questions, such as; why do young people mass to such sites? What do young people express on these SNS? And lastly, how do these sites enhance or fit into the lives of young people?

The goal of this study is to address the aforementioned questions and explore some of the implications on the lives of young people. Before an explanation is given on the rationale behind the topic of research, it’s important to understand the key features of social networking sites and equally a number of considerations which structure this study.

Firstly, Social networking sites (SNS) as defined by Boyd and Ellison (2007) are "web-based services that allow individuals to (1) construct a public or semi-public profile within a bounded system, (2) articulate a list of other users with whom they share a connection, and (3) view and traverse their list of connections and those made by others within the system. The nature and nomenclature of these connections may vary from site to site" (p210-230).

Social networking sites (SNS) include social media sites such as Facebook, MySpace, Twitter and Instagram to name a few. Equally, according to Boyd and Ellison (2008) many other web based sites which were developed for media sharing (i.e. YouTube, Tumblr, Pinterest, Last FM etc.) have also incorporated a profile feature and may also come under the umbrella of SNS. For purpose of this study, it must be noted that this paper will focus on the Facebook social networking site.

Inextricably linked to the phrase ‘ social networking’ is the term ‘ social media’ which refers to the technology and online social instruments of communication that allow interactive community based content sharing and collaboration. For example; online chatrooms / forums, microblogging, podcasts, social networking sites and wikis. (See Appendix A.) Throughout this research the term young people, teens/teenagers and adolescents are used interchangeably. It is however challenging to define the aforementioned terms since there are no universally accepted definitions. In most cases these terms/labels are socially and culturally created (Ito et al. 2009). Nevertheless the United Nations and the World Health Organization define adolescents to include persons aged 10-19 years and youth between 15-24. Together, adolescents and youth are referred to as young people aged 10-24. Given this broad variance my focus will be on the research carried out on persons aged between 12-18.

I will however consider pertinent research on the young adult population (i.e. college/university students) as this is the field that is most prevalent currently. Indeed research literature on young people aged 12-18 is only recently emerging as a major focal point. Nonetheless, existing and more well-established research on the young adult population will undoubtedly yield a rich theoretical structure which will conceptualised and provide context for the adolescent/teen population. The implication for me is considering whether such findings are applicable to the younger subject audience and identifying where there might be possible discrepancies between them and the older group.

Early (and most) research literature on SNS and social media focuses primarily on the risk management paradigm and discourse (Wolak et al 2006; 2008, Aoyama & Talbert 2010, Call & Burrow-Sanchez 2010). Thus the main purpose of this study is to investigate and illuminate the benefits connected to SNS use by young people, which to date has been neglected in public debate. I will endeavour to endorse and summarise young people’s opinions on the subject, considering they are often the most proficient users of social media and new technology.

As adults we often view young people or adolescents as a developmental stage of what ultimately they will become and not essentially as a complete being (Corsaro 1997). As such most of the studies in this territory have neglected the adolescent population and are from an adult standpoint rather than a youth centred approach which acknowledges young people as actors in their own social world (James and Prout 1997).

As a Pastoral Head of Year working within a secondary school; I often have to deal with the remnants of some of the social disputes on SNS such as cyber-bullying, sexting etc. (See appendix A.) As a result, this has had an adverse effect on my opinion with regard to the benefits of SNS and the impact it has on the lives of young people. Undoubtedly, dealing with these concerns has strengthened my alignment with the discourse that is echoed and magnified by the adult population regarding the use of SNS by young people and the associated risks. Therefore further exploration of this topic will allow me to readdress the imbalance within my work practice and in turn will enhance my professional development and knowledge.


It is essential to investigate what other scholars have written in relation to this topic and for this purpose, this literature review has been produced to summarise existing knowledge and to provide a contextual background. Kumar (2012) argues that it is an essential preliminary task which makes a valuable contribution to every operational step and provides a valuable insight into the theoretical roots and research methodology of a research topic. He also states that “Later in the process, the literature review serves to enhance and consolidate your own knowledge base and helps you to integrate your findings with the existing body of knowledge. Since an important responsibility in research is to compare your findings with those of others, it is here that the literature review plays an extremely important role”. (Kumar 2012; p 51)

Firstly, there is the rapidly increasing body of empirical research exploring how young people create social network profiles and the different types of interaction that occurs between the different networks (Donath and Boyd 2004; Boyd and Ellison, 2007; Hinduja and Patching, in press; Lenhart and Madden, 2007).

Moreover ethnographic data from Boyd’s 2007 two year study; found that young people use SNS to express different aspect of themselves both as individuals and as part of a group. This viewpoint has also been endorsed by Livingstone (2008) and Ito et al. (2009). Equally, Boyd (2007) and Watkins (2009) found that despite the potential for global networking, young people uses SNS to connect with friends in their local network and their online personal and social identity is endorsed by comments or ‘ likes’ from other young people in their network. (See Appendix A.)

Therefore a hypothesis underpinning this study is that the attitudes, perceptions, behaviours and interaction on these SNS have a set of social and technical affordances that have the potential to affect, shape and negotiate the social and personal identity of young people. For example, research conducted by Walther et al. (2008) found that friends’ input including, dialogue/conversation and photos, on one’s social media profile are all seen by others as indicators of one’s identity as much as one’s own comments. Such findings demonstrate the complexity of identity processes and indicators.

According to Tajfel (1978) and Tajfel & Turner (1986); Social identity is a person’s sense of who they are; based on similarities and differences with others. Our social identity provides a basis for shared social action and attitudes; it provides social validation, self-understanding /clarification, expression and relationship development. Harwood (2006) suggests that social identity is experienced in a variety of group settings such as demographic factors, and cultural, family and peer groups.

Similarly the concepts of reciprocity and deindividualization (NB. see Appendix A) are important facets in understanding adolescent social identity because adolescent development is characterized by sense of enhanced and frequent modification to social norms (Waterman & Archer 1990). It is a period in which social networks and friendship/relationship formation become extremely important to the construction of social and personal identity and behaviour (Giordano, 2003; Mesch 2010). What SNS provide are new ways and opportunities for young people to shape and navigate their social environment, make sense of cultural cues, grapple with social norms, explore new interests and forms of self-expression/identity coupled with enhancing their technological skills. In a similar fashion, Jenkins (2006) and Ito et al. (2008; 2009) argue that if young people are not able to access these online communities, then they may not develop the necessary skills and technical/media literacy. Thus these online communities are now fixtures of youth culture and provide a platform for self-directed learning, autonomy, bolstering technical skills and refining socio-emotional skills; so that young people can fully participate in contemporary society (Ito et al. 2008; 2009).

Two related strands of research inextricably linked to the topic of social networking profiles and the nature and use of the different types of interaction are social capital / capital gain (NB. see Appendix A ) and online/offline interaction. Previous research has documented a relationship between the use of SNS and increased levels of social capital/support and reciprocity (Wellman et al 1996). Equally the perceived value of online interaction is echoed by findings from the PEW study (Lenhart et al 2001). They found that online communication added value to existing friendship for young people (offering advice, assistance with school work, access to news and currents events etc) and did not affect or reduce or displace face to face interaction. Livingstone (2008) echoed similar findings and found that despite the fact SNS may have displaced other forms of online communication (i.e. email, chatrooms, etc.), it incorporates others (i.e. instant messaging, blogging, media sharing etc.) and remediates additional face to face and telephone communication. Furthermore the literature on personal relations and the social capital hypothesis has gone as far as to suggest that SNS such as Facebook provide resources and a forum to build self efficacy through a supportive network of friends (Ellison et al 2007; 2008). It also consolidates social relationships and communities ( through ‘ Fan/Group Page’), enhances creativity (i.e. young people becomes producer of media) , promotes self and collective expression/identity, promotes greater school involvement and work ethic and provides formal and informal educational outcomes (Anderson 2007; Mazer et al 2007; Notley 2010; Ito et al 2008;2013). Lastly, there is also the proposition that it promotes national/global awareness and civic and political participation (as in the case of KONY 2012 | Invisible Children).

Other supporters of the social capital and psychological wellbeing hypothesis include Steinfield et al. (2007; 2008) and Valenzuela et al. (2009). However, it is worth noting, that most of this research was conducted on college students and not adolescent youth. Nonetheless there is an extensive body of ethnographic studies conducted by Ito et al. (2008; 2009) examining youth media practices of young people. In their research they found that young people engage in three genres of participation, (i.e. ‘Hanging Out, Messing Around, and Geeking Out’) that describe different forms of commitment to media engagement and correspond to different social and learning dynamics.

‘Hanging Out’ relates to friendship-driven practices; in particular, the use SNS to spend casual social time with each other. The exploration of new interests and information outside the young person’s immediate network refers to the ‘Messing Around’ genre of participation. This allows young people to connect to others and share particular interests (i.e. online gaming, podcasting, video blogging etc) which may result in acquiring new technical and media literacy skills. ‘ Geeking Out’ refers to the thirst for specialised knowledge and enhanced status among expert peers through self directed means; such as sharing knowledge over forums/chatrooms, social gaming groups and illegal downloads (of music, software and films through the use of peer-to-peer file-sharing software such as ‘Torrent’). ‘ Geeking Out’ incorporates adult participation however adults are not necessary the specialist by means of age and as such ‘ Geeking Out’ destroys the conventional indicators of status and power.

Additionally, it is worth noting that social capital is a theoretical concept which originates from the works of Bourdieu (1986) and Coleman (1988). According to Ellison et al (2010) citing Putman (2000), “social capital refers to the benefits that can be attained from connections between people through social networks.”

To provide further contextual background and a unified theoretical framework for this paper, it is also worth considering the wider volume of research examining adolescent cognitive and psychological Development. Developmental theorists such as Erikson (1968; 1970) and Marcia (1966; 1976; 1980) provide a framework for thinking about human growth, development, and learning.

Another spectrum of research linked to the topic of social identity, which we looked at earlier in this chapter, is the issue of personal identity. Buckingham (2008, p1) expressed that identity, like adolescence, is “an ambiguous and slippery term”. However for the purpose of this study; by personal identity we mean how one perceives oneself and how others perceive one in the larger social environment. Both social identity and personal identity are inextricably linked and Deaux (1992) articulates that our role within the wider social context can affect and motivate our personal values and beliefs, how we view ourselves, our behaviour and our choices of relationship. (For example, our gender, ethnicity, religion political affiliation etc.)


In this chapter I will discuss and describe the research methodology used in this study. A simple and general definition of the methodology is described as the systems of methods, overall approach or path used to find the answers to research question(s) (Leedy & Ormrod 2001; Kumar 2014). Within this chapter we will look at the philosophy that underpins the research approach and design, the method of research and describe and contrast the different research instruments/tools used to collect data, including the methods used to uphold validity and reliability of the instruments.

The approach in which research is conducted is conceived in terms of the research philosophy. The research philosophy is a conviction/belief about the way in which data should be collected, analysed and utilised regarding a phenomenon. There are two theoretical paradigms of thoughts regarding the philosophical approach to research; the positivist approach and the interpretivist approach (also known as the constructivist approach). Within the context of this study, I will pursue the interpretivist approach to answering the research questions posed.

The positivist approach seeks understanding based on systematic observation and research, by the aim of establishing social laws parallel to the natural laws; uncovered by the techniques of natural sciences (Marshall 1994). Early positivists such Auguste Comte and Emile Durkheim endorsed that an accurate and objective explanation of the cause of a social phenomena can only be identified and accessed via scientific standards of verification.

This approach further seeks to hypothesize and then assess fundamental presumptions/regularities or inductive reasoning about a social trend that can then be generalised (Lin 1998). Quantitative research (which we will look at later in this chapter) is inherently linked to the positivist concept with an emphasis on assembling and adapting data into numerical structures so that statistical analysis and conclusions can be drawn; the results of which are typically presented using statistics, tables and graphs etc. (ACAPS 2012).

Like Clark and Bell (2012, p115 in Bradford and Cullen ) I share a sense of scepticism that social behaviour, and indeed the behaviour of young people using SNS, can be explained through such a restrictive and rigid approach that the positivist approach offers. This approach places significant importance to rationality, objectivity, prediction and control (Streubert and Carpenter, 1999: 7). Tucker (2012 p31 in Bradford and Cullen ) citing the works of Becks (1979:141) argues that “the purpose of social science is to understand social reality as different people see it and to demonstrate how their lives shape the action which they take within that reality”. Fundamentally my research questions inherently endorse the interpretivist approach because of the many variables and the open minded nature of the questions posed.



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Title: Benefits of social networking websites for young people