“Growing up with the Social Web”: Presentation of Research Results

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On the Role of Web 2.0-Offers in the Everyday Life of German Adolescents and Young Adults

The offers of the so-called social web, such as networking platforms (e.g. SchülerVZ, StudiVZ), video platforms (e.g. YouTube), instant messaging services (e.g. ICQ, MSN) as well as weblogs and wikis are very important for young people within their repertoire of media and their everyday life. They use the new possibilities of self-display, participation, networking, and relationship management in different ways according to their respective demands and concerns.

However, some services bear risks, e.g. with regard to data and user protection as well as transparency. Especially misjudgements concerning reach, sustainability and dynamics of social web offers may encourage dangerous usage.

The LfM study, which was conducted by the Hans Bredow Institute (Dr. Jan-Hinrik Schmidt, Prof. Dr. Uwe Hasebrink) in co-operation with the department of communication science of the university of Salzburg (Prof. Dr. Ingrid Paus-Hasebrink) and which presented in Düsseldorf on April 29, 2009, indicated what youth and young adults think about the new ways of communication, how they deal with them in everyday life and which differences occur with regard to age, gender and social context. Thereby a foundation is created for a factual debate about this important and already common feature of the media landscape.

The fascination of services and the way of self-expression and enactment are often inexplicable for outsiders and are viewed sceptically, which does frequently result in general criticism of all services. The debate about risks mainly circles around networking platforms, the coverage is leading towards equalisation of “social networking sites” and “social web” and potential risks of these specific offers are being conveyed to the social web in general, which does not at all do justice to the multitude of offers. Frequently disregarded in this context remains the fact that not the offers themselves are dangerous, but that they only through interaction of related functionalities and social and media-related competencies become risky. Especially misjudgements of reach, sustainability and dynamics of social web offers may encourage dangerous usage. Many users, for example, imagine themselves in closed and private communities and do not give much thought to the audience or the long-term consequences of their action, which remains documented on the Internet.

Underestimated are the dynamics of spreading content, e.g. when a private, supposedly funny photo circulates and the originator loses control of its distribution. In some cases users are just having some fun, however, sometimes it is a deliberate provocation. Mostly problems occur due to ignorance (among others also related to legal issues such as copyright) or naïve ideas of online publicity. This also touches upon the much discussed and risky field of data collection and passing on by third parties.

Although some users (e.g. through campaigns or media coverage) are sensitised to those risks, they find themselves – especially when using networking platforms – in a dilemma, because the successful participation, aiming to establish new contacts or extend the existing network, requires a certain openness and authenticity. However, most people are willing to pay this price.

In addition to data-related problem areas, the aspect of time should also be considered. The expenditure of time related to participation in social networks and fostering of social relationships may become an issue in case it is not in proportion to other activities.

The finding that both offer-related functionalities as well as social and media-related competencies of users are crucial for the quality of usage, refers to relevant fields of action and actors in order to minimise the risks of online usage as much as possible. Insecurity of users results from a lack of knowledge and transparency regarding terms of business as well as, for example, data protection. The providers are challenged to create maximal transparency with respect to usage and future use of the data. Likewise users should be granted the freedom of decision to what extent and for which purposes they want to make their data available.

But insecurity does also result from a lack of media-related competencies. Parents, schools and other pedagogic parties are facing the task to sensitise the adolescents for the risks, but on the other hand encourage and support them to utilise the potential of the social web according to their own requirements. It seems worthwhile to take a look at deliberations and approaches which do not only convey “classical” dimensions of media competence to the social web, but which also refer to the social dimension and deal with the question how a respectful and responsible converse within and with the social web can be successful or be encouraged.

The survey, which was commissioned by the State Media Authority of North Rhine-Westphalia, relies on an analysis of the substantial features of offers in the so-called social web, group discussions and individual interviews with youth and young adults as well as a representative poll among 12- to 14-year-old online users in Germany. The term social web is mainly associated with networking platforms (e.g. SchülerVZ, StudiVZ), video platforms (e.g. YouTube), instant messaging services (e.g. ICQ, MSN), weblogs and wikis.

The study is planned to be published as a book within the series Medienforschung (media research) of the LfM in summer 2009.