Teens and Gender on Social Media Sites: Evaluating Online Behavior

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How important is social media in today’s world? Photo by Paolo Orsacchini, used with permission, all rights reserved.

The predominant social networks users are young adults. According to Lenhart, in 2009 research, three-quarters of the Internet users under age 25 have a profile on a social networking site – but do the rigid rules of social media sites, and the gender of the teens, affect their use of the sites?

Research shows differences, but controlling for variables results in a different picture – personality traits mean more than gender, when it comes to Social Networking and Teenagers

Teenagers Don’t Use Social Media For ‘Networking’

Social network sites have become social hangout spaces, like malls, for American teenagers. Unlike many adults, teenagers socialize in pre-existing groups, but really they are never networking in the sense that adults network.

Social network sites have become critically important to teens, however, because this is where they gossip, compete for status, and act as “digital flaneurs” as Boyd quotes in 2010.

Teens use online tools to see and be seen. The features and functionality of Facebook allow them to create a specific profile supporting their self-expression. As a first step, we need to focus on the structure, the social network interface, and how users relate to it.

How Teens Use Social Networking Sites

Teens mainly use social networks to keep in touch with their friends, although they prefer a face-to-face contact for important communication. Even the average number of contact is quite similar, together with the age of the first approach with a Social Networking Site (SNS).

  • Girls choose to stay in touch with their schoolmates (53.5%) more than boys (43.9%).
  • Another stereotypical “girly” aspect is gossip: 24.7 % of girls found this is an important feature, while only 14.6% of boys used social media to keep up on the lives of others.
  • 61,2% of girls post their personal picture, vs. 45.9% of boys.
  • Boys are more the collecting type, posting and reposting images from external sources (28% boys vs 14% of girls for posting a random web picture on their account).
  • Posting videos seems a male prerogative with the 31.3% of boys doing it, compared to 21.4% girls. 

These differences show that there is not a big gap between the two genders, but they are quite similar in their approach, and the way they manage a social networking account.

Kids face a quiet rigidity in the social network structure, with the forced choice between the two genders – but as happens in society, even if institutions stand still, people find ways to express themselves. The fact that there are not so many differences in boys and girls’ use of SNS demonstrates that though the structure requires a statement of difference between the two genders, teenager use has few particularities between boys and girls. In this sense, gender results as a not very useful variable to explain Social networking use. 

Social Media Gender Registration

In 2008, Wötzel-Herber showed that there are only few networks where individuals can become a member without defining themselves as male or female; social networking sites provide valuable opportunities for emerging adults to realize possible selves.

Thus, we can observe a strong relevance of gender binary and validity of stereotyped role models in social networks. On one hand the technical design of the site often does not often allow positions beyond male and female and fixes the system of two genders. On the other hand, despite the opportunities to realize diverse and non-conforming gender roles, the majority of users present themselves in a stereotypical way.  

Social Media Profiles and Gender

Studies on the content of social network site profiles suggest that, in places where users introduce themselves with their ‘real’ identity, the users also deliberately exhibit gender in an extraordinary way.

In social network sites, the two-gender choice is central to platforms’ design. Thus, as gender and technology studies have shown before – by Cockburn and Ormrod in 1993, and by Wajcman, 1991, gender relations are inscribed into technology on a structural level. In addition, many users of these sites negotiate and construct gender as a biological fact interpreting the way to live it and express it to others.

If we don’t see a total collapse of gender definitions in new technologies, we can observe a new reinforcement of exclusively male and female gender identities significance for the necessity of users to express their gender. In 1996, Adams and Marshall theorized that cultural values in social institutions influence the dialogue and interactions among individuals, and these interpersonal processes affect the identity. Furthermore sociocultural researchers, as Baumeister and Muraven 1996, and Cote & Levine in 2002, have also suggested the adaptation to cultural context through social processes to be central to identity formation.

In this framework, Facebook introduces a cultural context in which social interaction and self-presentation norms develop and create new possibilities for experimentation and reflection on both real and possible selves.

Identity in Progress

Emerging new adults are in a stage characterized by instability and self-focus, exploring a variety of possibilities in relationships, and beliefs before committing to adult roles.

What we are facing within the new generation and social media use, is the human activity’s transformation of constructing personal, social, and gender identities. In 2008, Reichert’s research shows how far social network sites, weblogs and e-learning tools correspond with the requirements the subjects need to practice successful self-presentation, flexible self-management, self-framing and self-reflection.

Symbolic interactionists, such as Goffman in 1959, have theorized that the way individuals introduce themselves to others through impression management is involved in the development of self. Similar to Cooley’s notion of the “looking-glass-self,” Goffman’s theory posits that individuals develop a sense of self from creating an impression they wish they would give to others.

The discourse of self-reflection and self-presentation demands everybody’s willingness to learn, control and develop the new forms of medial self-control. In particular researchers have suggested that the online environment differs from other media environments in that participants co-construct their own environment: Online users are creating and co-creating their virtual environments through social interaction. The identity becomes socially constructed in environments such as chat rooms, and personal accounts on social networks, as Greenfield, Gross, Subrahmanyam, Suzuki, & Tynes theorized in 2006, actuating adolescent identity issues in new forms.

Thus, we can consider web 2.0 a prototype of liberal governing technology. Specifically the self-presentation in social networks has a remarkable potential to manage gender identities. Moreover online practices, cultural notions of gender influence children’s beliefs and self-concepts through daily interactions with peers, family, and media.  

Do today’s social media users take on fluid identities? Photo by Paolo Orsacchini, used with permission, all rights reserved.

Identity and Fluidity

There are various ways in which popular ideas about self in society have changed, so that the identity is more fluid and transformable than ever before.

Popular media researchers of twenty, thirty years ago, often said that mainstream culture was a backwards-looking force, resistant to social change, trying to force people into traditional categories.

Today, it is likely to emphasize that, within limits, mass media are a force for change. Not only there is more room for a greater variety of emerging identities, but it is also the case that mass media convey somehow instrument and cue for identity construction.

In Modern Western societies, identity construction has become a well-known need. Society requires individuals to make identity and lifestyle choices, although their options may be limited due to lack of financial (or cultural) resources.

Live Your Own Experimental Life

As the sociologist Ulrich Beck has noted, in late modern societies everyone wants to ‘live his own life’, and at the same time this is ‘an experimental life’. Since the social world is no longer confident in its traditions, every approach to life, whether seemingly radical or conventional, is somewhat risky and needs to be nurtured, considered and maintained, or amended.

Because of inherited strategies to live and stereotype roles fail to function, we have to make our own new patterns of being, and it seems clear that the media play an important role in here. Therefore the social construction of identity today is to know how to construct a social identity.

In this scenario, there is no escape: Your life is your project. Furthermore, people are changing, building new identities founded not on the certainties of the past, but organized around the new order of a modern living, where the meanings of gender, sexuality and identity are increasingly open.

Social Constructions

The Queer theory (Queer theory builds both upon feminist challenges to the idea that gender is part of the essential self and upon gay/lesbian studies’ close examination of the socially constructed nature of sexual acts and identities) has a specific point of view when it comes to openness on gender definition and practice. Assuming that identity definition is socially and culturally framed, something that is not given, but constantly changing within human interaction and experience, so gender is.

Performativity on social network is about creating an identity, performing a certain “character on stage” through which you achieve bonding and bridging with others. On social networks, reality is what is performed, and so is identity.

Identity dynamics on social network profiles assume mediation characteristics rather than having a direct relationship, so that it is no longer strictly framed to a belonging group, but de-framed from it. Therefore, social identity is constructed partially through consumerist cultural preferences, expressed on the personal Timeline on Facebook, not linked on a traditional physical affinity.

Effects may be positive or negative, founded on reality or on fabrication, but it is inevitable for the teen to be open to other social groups. This new fragmentary aspect of our status vivendi (i.e. way of living) is taking on these facing perspectives, voyeuristic nosiness, and everything able to shape the perception on ourselves, on others and on us with/ in relation others.

Part of this identity is also the online gender, acting and representing through the tools social networks give users. If, however, we consider the design and self-presentations in the social network sites, we can state a strong relevance of gender. It starts with the registration form.

Performing Genders Online

Researchers conducted a survey on 1700 students of Veneto secondary schools, in particular pupils of 1st, 3rd, 5th grade. They intended to investigate the behavior of the young millennial generation, between April and June 2012, with CAWI techniques. (Computer-Assisted Web Interviewing, CAWI, is an Internet surveying technique in which the interviewee follows a script provided in a website.)

How do teens use social media? Teens see online interactions in a totally different perspective than adults. Photo By H2006.

The perspective here sees every action on the Social Networking Site (SNS) as performing personae, which involves how users live their gender interpretation. In our study we notice some disparities between the way girls and boys express their gender way of being, but researchers haven’t observed many differences in how the sample looks at SNS -how they perceive and uses them.

Gender, Social Media, and Research Variables

These findings highlight the influence of variables not necessarily linked to genders, demonstrating that perhaps social network accounts are quiet like houses: we may live in the same house, but the way in which we are going to decorate it and choose the furniture to put in is unique, and only a very complex set of variables could explain it.

When facing a new world, where gender may become not the most significant fact in human existence, researchers will need to improve their set of variables – if they want to capture more accurate information.

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