Social networking sites a trap for teens

Social Networking Sites

Teens need education and skills to properly manage use of Social Networking Sites

By Michael Henderson, David Lindsay, Melissa de Zwart and Michael Phillips

Social networking sites, such as Facebook, are playing an important part in the lives of most teenagers.

Our research has shown that 95 per cent of Victorian students in Years 7 to 10 use at least one social networking site (SNS).

In addition, 60 per cent of those students update the information on their site one or more times every day. This popularity of social networking by young people has appropriately led to widespread social concerns about the online safety of young users.

The policy response to these concerns, as well as most public attention, has largely focused on promoting ‘cybersafety’.

The cybersafety agenda has, to date, been dominated by the objective of protecting children and teenagers from risks such as cyber-bullying, sexual grooming and sexting. While these risks unarguably require scrutiny, comparatively little attention has been given to other legal risks such as breaches of privacy, defamation and intellectual property infringements.

Additionally, criminal offences such as harassment and identity theft are significant risks that face young users of social networking services.

The range of potential legal liability for posting material to social networking services is nowhere better illustrated than in the events surrounding the posting of naked photographs of AFL footballers to Facebook by a Melbourne teenager in December 2010. This led to immediate legal action against the teenager (demanding removal of the photographs), as well as threats of more serious legal consequences.

Our research surveyed and interviewed more than 1000 students, 250 teachers and 49 parents across 17 Victorian State, Catholic and independent schools. This research not only confirmed that social networking sites played an important and valued role in students’ day to day activities but also that the students were putting themselves and their friends at risk, primarily due to a lack of understanding of the intricacies of those risks. 

While almost half of the students (48 per cent) recognised that there was some element of risk in using SNS, over a quarter of the students (28.3 per cent) thought that SNS were safe. Perhaps just as worrying is that 19 per cent of students were ambivalent and reported that the degree of risk was not relevant because it is “just what everyone does.” Overall, Year 7 students are more likely to perceive SNS as safe or only a little bit risky. This is reflected in the fact their SNS profiles are also more visible.

To appreciate the legal risks facing young people, it is important to understand how interactions via social networking technologies differ from offline interactions. While offline social interactions may well be problematic, they are essentially transient, and their dissemination is limited. Interactions via social networking sites, however, may leave a more or less permanent record, and have a potentially large distribution.

These factors create legal risks – such as risks of privacy breaches, copyright infringement or defamation – that are significantly different to the risks of offline interactions. Yet the use of social networking sites for spontaneous social interactions, as well as the relatively recent popularity of social media, means that the legal implications of behaviour are unlikely to be understood or taken into account.

Social networking sites are not only popular with young people but they are reported to serve a valued role in their lives. The majority of students indicated that the most important function of social networking was to maintain current social networks, for example keeping in touch with friends and families.

However, in doing so 60 per cent of students reported that they posted photographs of themselves, and over 50 per cent posted photographs of their friends. Unless users are aware of risks, the sharing of such information can lead to compromising situations and even legal liability for not only the user but also potentially anyone in the images or videos.

A disturbing number of students post third party content, including music (26 per cent), videos (38 per cent) and photos (9 per cent). In this situation the legal implications are fairly obvious; however, none of the students indicated awareness that such behaviour constituted legal risk.

Young people have a general awareness of some risks associated with using social networking, however there was a tendency to downplay the risks. A similar lack of nuanced understanding was also found in their parents and teachers, despite their increased acknowledgement of risk.

Despite the acknowledged risks of students using SNS, there is surprisingly little ongoing conversation about SNS use between parents and their children, on the one hand, or teachers and their students, on the other. In this respect, almost half of the surveyed students (46 per cent) reported that they did not talk with their parents about SNS use, while almost three quarters of the students (74 per cent) reported that they did not talk with their teachers about SNS use. It is particularly worrying that only 1 per cent of students reported that they would consider asking for guidance or help from adults.

A national and international review confirms that there is no policy or regulation which will eliminate risk. Indeed, the highly distributed, disintermediated nature of these services means that they cannot be regulated in the way that traditional media have been. Any response to the risks of using the services, and especially the risks facing young users, must engage multiple stakeholders, including governments, SNS operators, parents, teachers and students. It is therefore critical to encourage an ongoing conversation between students, parents and teachers about the implications of the widespread use of social networking.

Our conclusion, unsurprisingly, is that greater initiatives in education are required. However, the education needs to be inclusive of the entire community. Parents and teachers are in as much need of understanding the range of risks as their children and students. As a part of this approach, and while recognising the real problem of a crowded curriculum, it is essential that the full range of legal risks potentially encountered by young people in the use of social networking is incorporated into a fully integrated cybersafety school curricula.

There is also a role for governments to engage with social networking service providers, in ways similar to initiatives in the US and Europe, to promote best practices. In a period where there is an understandable degree of trial and error in the use of social media, it is most important for responses to be informed by an understanding of actual risks faced by young people – rather than rare or hypothetical risks – and for all interested groups to be involved in developing flexible solutions.

We must accept that social networking is now part of the social fabric of youth culture. Despite the potential risks, there are recognised social and educational opportunities offered by the new media. Rather than resisting such technology, educators, regulators and parents need to work together to equip teenagers with the skills and awareness to use it safely, effectively and appropriately.

One such resource has been developed by the authors:


Michael Henderson is a Senior Lecturer in ICT in Education, in the Faculty of Education, Monash University, Melbourne.

Michael Phillips is a PhD candidate in the Faculty of Education, Monash University, Melbourne. 

Melissa de Zwart is an Associate Professor in the Adelaide Law School, The University of Adelaide.

David Lindsay is an Associate Professor in the Faculty of Law, Monash University, Melbourne.