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Social networking: The next generation

For many, the phenomenon that is social networking has been an evolution, but for teenagers it has been more of a revolution. Being a teen is a time to be rebellious, to establish identity with peers and to prove independence from parents; the first steps into adulthood. They want to do things their way and not have to listen to parents, even if it is “for your own good”. When it comes to social networking, teenagers see it as ‘their territory’ and an ‘adult-free zone’, which seems perfectly legitimate for a 16 year old, but is it the same story if you’re ten?

Facebook, a social network developed on an American university campus to keep in touch with other likeminded students, has become the most popular site among teenagers since it launched in 2004 and has been something that many teens and young adults have grown up with. Facebook clearly states that users have to be 13 or over, but with no way of checking the age of its one billion users, children can easily create an account. With over a third of the UK’s nine to 12-year olds on facebook, there is very limited parental control over a child’s actions on the site. Facebook works on a mutual friend basis, and depending on privacy settings, only mutual friends will be able to see your profile and the information that you have exposed on it. The worry with this is that children do not have to ‘add’ their parents or family on Facebook and are therefore removing a considerable amount of parental control over what they do on the Internet.

Teenagers use social networking for much more than uploading pictures and ‘stalking people’, seeing it as a foundation “to keep in touch with friends and family that I can't visit often and also as a way of sharing memories,” as well as “to plan events and use groups”. However, this has also meant that a lot of the ‘old fashioned’ forms of communication have been eliminated. Rarely will they phone a friend or write a letter; even written invitations seem to have gone out the window with the ‘event’ option on Facebook. Although social networking is seen as an easier way to organise and talk, it does also mean that teens grow up with a lack of confidence when it comes to talking on the phone, or possibly even a face-to-face conversation.

This concept of ‘communication by proxy’ brings with it a number of issues, not least of which is the shock that many teens will experience when they enter the real world – job interviews are rarely conducted via Facebook! But there’s also a more immediate problem. By posting comments without any real indication of how the other party will react, it’s easy for communication to be misinterpreted or simply taken the wrong way. What would clearly be seen as a joke verbally, can often come across as acidic when read. And that’s before you consider that it’s far easier to be intentionally nasty remotely than it is fact to face.

With roughly 39 per cent of social network users being the subject of cyber bullying in some way and only one in six parents knowing that their child has been bullied over a social network, this leaves children and teens in a very vulnerable position. When asked, a number of teenagers said that they often used Facebook to “stalk people I don’t like” and while this can seem like a harmless act at the time, it can spiral into something more serious. On social networks such as Facebook, viscous comments, pictures or conversations can easily be passed onto a large number of people, escalating the situation into something out of the victim’s control and more importantly, out of the parents’ control. In these situations it can often be a case of “I should’ve listened to Mum” but let’s be honest, when it comes to social networking, who does?

Smartphones have meant that even in a social situation, teens have the opportunity to talk to someone in the same room over a mechanically constructed message rather than walking over and flexing their vocal chords. Although, in some cases, this can be very useful, it also means that the definition of ‘a chat’ is changing to the dynamics of a Facebook feature; a concept that adults and parents find worrying and in some cases frightening. Social networking has curtailed the social abilities of many teens and for the younger generations, who will grow up with the full availability of sites, real social interaction could be even more limited.

Bebo, a site specifically aimed at teenagers was set up in 2005 as competition to the already emerging Facebook. Despite the strong similarities between the two, Bebo didn’t seem to ‘hit it off’ with its demographic, resulting in the announcement of the site’s closure and subsequent sale in 2010. Although the site was re-bought by Criterion Capital Partners, Bebo still hasn’t been able to match up to Facebook and the majority of teens who were asked if they use the site stated that, “I’ve heard of Bebo, but have never used it”.

Twitter is also becoming very popular with teens. The 140 character limit on each tweet has resulted in a conversation based style and the ability for non-mutual friends to connect, offering the average person the chance to follow celebrities and inspiring individuals and receive updates and comments from them. “I find the style of the site much more relaxed in comparison to Facebook as it allows me to write without the worry of receiving ‘comments’ or ‘likes’” and instead, offers the ‘re-tweet’ and ‘favourite’ options. But it’s ‘Hash-tagging’ that makes Twitter unique as it allows for people to add a relevant keyword or phrase (no spaces) in their tweet to categorise it and increase visibility in the twitter search. Clicking on a ‘hash-tag’ in any message shows you all other tweets marked with the same keyword and if it becomes very popular, it will often result in being a ‘trending’ topic.

The site also has many more personal settings in comparison to Facebook and similar social services. Twitter removes the necessity for people to reveal their name, age or contact details making what sounds like a highly unsafe site much friendlier. One teen said, “I feel like I can share emotions and trivia information without feeling judged,” perhaps because the site is much more about the present and what a person is doing or how they are feeling at that specific moment and not about reminiscing over past photos, comments or posts like Facebook. And let’s be honest, with 750 tweets being sent every second, there is not a lot of time to look back.

Facebook appears to be much more popular with older generations than the likes of Twitter and similarly to teenagers, adults also use Facebook as a way to communicate with others. When speaking to one adult, he said, “I think reading people’s statuses and keeping in touch by talking to so-called ‘friends’ once a month, makes people feel less guilty about not keeping in touch with them properly by phone or in person. First and foremost I use Facebook to see what's new in everyone else’s lives. Then, I like to post witty observations on life - funny things I’ve seen or conversations I’ve had, and finally, exchange banter with friends I don’t see any more because of work commitments or the distance between us.” In ways, this is very similar to how teenagers claim to use Facebook; a platform to communicate easily and with minimal effort and time. He then went on to say that, “obviously some people start 'pages' on something they are passionate about, or to campaign for something they perceive to be an injustice. On the other end of the scale, I am a member of a page related to an online game I play.”

There are also social networks that are aimed directly at older generations, for example, LinkedIn. LinkedIn has over 160 million members and one million LinkedIn groups, proving its popularity with its demographic. It offers its users the ability to stay in touch with old school friends and work colleagues while also highlighting new job opportunities and the chance to speak to industry experts who offer advice and guidance.

Recently, a lot of businesses have started to use Twitter to increase their popularity. As ‘hash-tags’ act as mini-links, businesses can use them as a way of grabbing the attention of people who are otherwise unconnected and therefore use them as a promotional device. If the ‘hash-tag’ is used a lot, it can start to ‘trend’, attracting an increasingly larger group and upping the chances of the business being successful in its Twitter venture. For businesses, Facebook can also be a great medium thanks to people ‘liking’ pages and its vast opportunities for advertising. Take the ‘Kit-Kat Chunky Champion’ for example. Nestle is using social networking sites to encourage people to vote for their favourite new flavour of Kit-Kat, ensuring both an increase in popularity and also rises in sales.

This just proves how differently the typical adult and teenager use social networking. For adults, social networking can often be more than just a way of communication, offering business related prospects and links; even LinkedIn, a site aimed to help colleagues stay in touch, offers job opportunities and guidance. However, in the eyes of a teenager, social networking is more than just an opportunity to talk to friends for free and organise their social lives; it is a necessity. It has become part of their everyday lives and is the one thing that they know they can rely upon during any day of any given week.

Teenagers are not interested in looking at new job prospects, and likewise adults aren’t interested in being constantly linked and available to a list of multiple people that they may not know. Teenagers find joy and excitement from uploading pictures and communicating with friends through virtual messaging. They want to check their notifications and friend requests and look at other people’s profiles. The typical adult, by contrast, wants to catch up with old friends over the phone and go for a cup of coffee. Both young and old use social networking, but clearly in very different ways.