A developmental perspective regarding the behaviour of adolescents, young adults, and adults on social network sitesWouter Martinus Petrus Steijn
Keywords: online relationships, self-disclosure, self-presentation, information sharing, social network sites, development
Social network sites (SNSs), like other social media such as blogs and twitter, have found an important place in the lives of many people. Here, I specifically examine SNSs in which social relationships and friendships are the major focus. Facebook serves as the best known example in this category with over 1 billion users1. Originally intended for students, user demographics of Facebook include individuals of all ages nowadays (Hampton, Goulet, Rainie, & Purcell, 2011; Lenhart, Purcell, Smith, & Zickuhr, 2010). Nevertheless, it is predominantly younger people that make the most intensive use of these SNSs.
The image that persists in popular debate is that young people are risky users of SNSs. However, this primarily relies on a generational interpretation of online behaviour. Young people are often seen as a generation that shares too much about themselves and they do this too openly on SNSs and that they care little about their privacy (Nussbaum, 2007). This view seems to resemble the earlier studies in which young people were portrayed as sharing too much personal information on SNSs without adjusting the privacy settings to protect this information (Acquisti & Gross, 2006; Debatin, Lovejoy, Horn, & Hughes, 2009; Govani & Pashley, 2005). This contention is reinforced all the more by the media, which provides countless examples on how disclosures by young people on these sites went awry (e.g., Ferenstein, 2013; Levy, 2009; O’Dell, 2011).
The intensive use of SNSs by young people, which is reflected in the sharing of information and their numerous contacts (Christofides, Muise, & Desmarais, 2012; Pfeil, Arjan, & Zaphiris, 2009) could, however, also be related to age-specific developmental goals. Two important developmental goals for young people are relationship and identity development (Brown, 1990; Erikson, 1959; Peter & Valkenburg, 2011; Savin-Williams & Berndt, 1990). The fact that young people add more contacts than adults do, could be related to their developmental goal of relationship development. The fact that young people generally share more personal information on SNSs could be related to the developmental goal of developing their identity in relation to their peers. Here, I will provide an analysis of the online behaviour of both young and old from this developmental perspective. Although I cannot provide conclusive evidence for a developmental perspective in this paper, I will provide further support for the plausibility of a developmental perspective in order to understand young people’s online behaviour.
Up until now, few studies have actually compared younger and older individuals’ use of SNSs (Christofides et al., 2012; Madden & Smith, 2010; Pfeil et al., 2009). Pfeil and colleagues (2009) reported that in their sample, young users of MySpace (13- to 19-year-olds) had more contacts and shared more messages than older users (60 years and older), but they did not include any respondents aged 20 to 59. Christofides and colleagues (2012) did include respondents from all ages and compared adolescents’ (12- to 18-year-olds) and adults’ (19- to 78-year-olds) behaviour on Facebook. They found that adolescents were more likely to add contacts they did not know and they shared more information on their profile. However, the adults in their study concerned a broad age group in which further variation is likely found. For example, Madden and Smith (2010) did distinguish two groups in that age range. They found that young adults (18- to 29-year-olds) were more active managers of their online information on social media in general, which included adjusting the privacy settings, than older adults (30-year-old and older). However, they did not include any adolescents in their sample for comparison.
Today, no single study has compared the behaviour on SNSs by adolescents, young adults and adults, which are defined here as 12- to 19-year olds, 20- to 30-year olds and 30-year-olds and older respectively. The lack of direct comparison between these three age groups makes it difficult to assess exactly how younger and older individuals differ in their use of SNSs. For example, the findings described above portray young adults as relatively safe users of SNSs, who share less information than adolescents and adults, and who adjust the privacy settings more often (Christofides et al., 2012; Madden & Smith, 2010). This is at odds with studies which examined only young adults and which noted the intensive and risky use of SNSs by young adults (Acquisti & Gross, 2006; Debatin et al., 2009; Govani & Pashley, 2005). This discrepancy emphasizes the necessity for comparative data to interpret online behaviour accurately. Therefore, the primary aim is to investigate the differences in behaviour on SNSs amongst adolescents, young adults, and adults. I hypothesize that behaviour on SNSs, such as information sharing and adding of contacts, is closely related to the developmental goals of relationship and identity development and I expect that these goals might account for some of the differences observed in SNSs use. Secondly, I will compare the use of privacy settings in order to make a better assessment of whether adolescents are indeed the most risky users of SNSs.
The Developmental Perspective
A developmental perspective suggests that the behaviour observed on SNSs is typical in individuals of a certain age and that their behaviour resembles offline social development (Christofides et al., 2012; Subrahmanyam, Smahel, & Greenfield, 2006). In other words, the behaviour that adolescents exhibit on SNSs today is similar to how individuals from previous generations behaved offline when they were the same age (Herring, 2008; Marwick, Diaz, & Palfrey, 2010); it is driven by the same social goals, only now the behaviour takes place online. In this study, I will focus on the social goals of relationship development and identity development and their relationship with the behaviour displayed on SNSs. Although other social goals exist as well, such as the development of autonomy and the sexual self (Peter & Valkenburg, 2011), the social goals of relationship development and identity development seem to be the most strongly connected to the adding of contacts and disclosure of information which takes place on SNSs (Boneva, Quinn, Kraut, Kiesler, & Shklovski, 2006; boyd, 2008; Ellison, Steinfield, & Lampe, 2007; Lampe, Ellison, & Steinfield, 2006; Madden & Smith, 2010; Marwick et al., 2010; Nadkarni, & Hofmann, 2012; Peter & Valkenburg, 2011; Regan & Steeves, 2010; Steijn & Schouten, 2013).
Relatively little attention has been paid to social development during young adulthood and adulthood when compared to adolescence. For example, while Peter and Valkenburg (2011) give a systematic and extensive theoretical analysis of the link between developmental tasks and online behaviour, their analysis is focussed only on adolescents. However, it can be expected that similar links between behaviour on SNSs and age specific tasks and desires exist for young adults and adults. In this study, I will investigate and compare adolescents’, young adults’, and adults’ behaviour from a developmental perspective. Here, I will first provide a short description for each age group in terms of their needs for relationship and identity development.
Relationship development is an important developmental goal during adolescence. Adolescents need to learn the skills required to form and maintain intimate relationships (Peter & Valkenburg, 2011). In addition, peer relationships and friendships can affect the psychological, social and academic development of the adolescent (Blieszner & Roberto, 2004; Savin-Williams & Berndt, 1990). Generally, adolescents are thus expected to have more friends than adults (Blieszner & Roberto, 2004; Hartup & Stevens, 1999) and their focus is expected to be on acquiring new friendships (Boneva et al., 2006). Previous studies have shown that adolescents are inclined to turn to SNSs in order to make new friends and to become acquainted with them (Valkenburg, Schouten, & Peter, 2005).
Adolescents are also in a life phase during which the development of an identity is an important task (Erikson, 1959). Identity development often takes place through self-presentation (i.e., by posting personal information on their SNS profile) towards peers. Much time is spent with friends who become increasingly important in establishing an adolescent’s identity (Brown, 1990). In 2006, Boneva and colleagues noted that “Adolescence is defined by the need for intense person-to-person communication with a friend—spending a lot of time together … and self-disclosing” (p. 618). The internet has provided adolescents with a new medium in the form of SNSs to present themselves, through public posts, and hence to experiment with their identity (Valkenburg & Peter, 2008).The need to develop new relationships declines during young adulthood, and instead young adults start to develop existing relationships in depth. Young adults start to establish more intimate and satisfying relationships (Erikson, 1968). In their investigation of the relationship between sharing information on SNSs and relationships, Steijn and Schouten found that younger respondents report that they have formed new relationships more often, whereas older individuals more often report getting more involved with others (2013).
According to Arnett (2006), the adolescent need for identity development will persist during young adulthood. Arnett defines this developmental phase as emerging adulthood as during this phase individuals find employment, leave their parental homes, and they may even decide to settle down and start families, as individuals become more self-sufficient and independent (Arnett, 2000; 2006). As a result, the focus of their identity development during young adulthood starts to be geared more towards work and love (Arnett, 2006). The identity development in relation to love appears to be closely related to the fact that young adults establish more intimate relationships (Erikson, 1968). In regard to the identity development in relationship to work, it could be expected that young adults have an increased need to keep the identity which they have developed online separate from their offline identity while searching for employment by using the privacy settings. Employers who check the online profiles of their applicants are becoming an increasing worry. A recent study has shown that 20 to 40 percent of European recruiters would not invite a qualified candidate if they would find embarrassing pictures on social media (“Réseaux sociaux: comment réagissent les recruteurs face à un détail gênant sur un candidat?”, 2013).
Adults are expected to have the least need for SNSs as a tool to achieve their developmental goals. Although the role of friends is significant at all ages, the time spent with friends declines during adulthood (Blieszner & Roberto, 2004; Hartup & Stevens, 1999). In addition, adults can be expected to have developed stable relationships and feel less of a need to use SNSs to establish new friendships. Instead, adults may be more likely to use SNSs in order to stay in touch with their family. This could, for example, involve their parents or siblings who require more effort to stay in touch at an elderly age when compared to adolescents who have not yet left the parents’ home. At an elderly age, this might even involve adults’ own children, or even their grand-children.
Similarly, adults can be expected to have less need for SNSs as tool for developing their identity. Most identity development theories state that as an individual grows older, his or her identity strengthens (Waterman, 1982). As a result, adults will have less of a need to experiment with their identities or to present themselves favourably to others (Leary, 1995). Instead, they will be interested in strengthening their existing identities (Waterman, 1982).
This study is the first to present an overview of adolescents’, young adults’, and adults’ online behaviour on SNSs from a developmental perspective. I will investigate to what degree online behaviour, that is, the type of contacts individuals add to their SNS profile, the information they share on their SNS profile, and their use of privacy settings, can be linked back to the individuals’ need for relationship and identity development associated with their developmental life phase. Next, I will formulate the hypotheses regarding the differences in online behaviour, based on the differences in the need for relationship and identity development associated with each developmental life phase as I described in the previous section.
In the previous section, I have shown that adolescents primarily distinguish themselves from young adults and adults in their increased need for forming new relationships (Boneva et al., 2006; Valkenburg, Schouten, & Peter, 2005). Adolescents are therefore expected to have most contacts on their SNS profile, to be more likely to report to use their SNS profile primarily to meet new people, and to be more likely to add contacts to get to know them. During adulthood, the focus of contacts is expected to have shift to family instead as the time spent with friend declines (Blieszner & Roberto, 2004; Hartup & Stevens, 1999). These expectations were formulated in the following hypothesis:
H1a: Adolescents will have more contacts on SNSs compared to young adults and adults.
H1b: Adolescents will be more likely to add contacts on SNSs they don’t know to explore new friendships compared to young adults and adults.
H1c: Adolescents will be more likely to report to mainly use SNSs to meet new people compared to young adults and adults.
H1d: Adults will be more likely to have primarily family members as contacts on SNSs compared to young adults and adults.
Concerning the need for identity development, less difference is expected between adolescents and young adults: the adolescent’ need for identity formation persists in young adulthood (Arnett, 2006). However, this need declines in adulthood (Waterman, 1982). Also, since, self-presentation is an important method for individuals to develop their own identity, adolescents and young adults can be expected to disclose more information on SNSs than adults. These expectations were formulated in the following hypothesis:
H2a: Adolescents and young adults will post more frequently on SNSs compared to adults.
H2b: Adolescents and young adults will post about more topics on SNSs compared to adults.
H2c: Adolescents and young adults will be more likely to report to mainly use the SNSs for self-presentation compared adults.
Finally, I will look at the use of privacy settings. Young adults are expected to have the greatest need to keep the identity developed online separate from their offline identity by using the privacy settings, in order to keep potential employers from finding their online profiles (“Réseaux sociaux: comment réagissent les recruteurs face à un détail gênant sur un candidat?”, 2013). This is in keeping with recent findings that showed that young adults use the privacy settings more often than adolescents (Christofides et al., 2012), and that young adults do this more often than adults (Madden & Smith, 2010). Thus the following hypothesis is formulated:
H3: Young adults are more likely to have adjusted their privacy settings compared to adolescents and adults.
An online survey was conducted by the research institute TNS-NIPO, which allowed respondents to participate from their own computer at home. Respondents were recruited through a stratified sampling procedure. From July 19 until August 4, 2011, 3170 respondents in the age range of 12- to 83-years-old were approached for the survey. In total, 1720 respondents completed the questionnaire of whom 1008 respondents had a profile on an SNS. Respondents gave their consent to participate in the research survey (parents provided consent for individuals younger than 18 years old) and upon completion of a survey they received special credits, which respondents could trade for discount coupons. All respondents received the same survey with some minor modifications regarding the language and politeness rules for addressing children and adults in Dutch.
Six respondents were removed from the sample as they had explicitly stated that they created their profile merely for a different purpose (e.g., as requirement for using another site). Of the remaining 1002 respondents, 125 (12.5%) had a profile only on Facebook, 365 (36.4%) only have a profile on Hyves2, and 512 (51.1%) have a profile on both sites. Respondents using both Hyves and Facebook were prompted to answer the items for the SNS they used most.
Respondents were distributed among the following three age groups: 372 adolescents (12 to 19-year-olds, M = 14.60, SD = 2.16), 277 young adults (20 to 30-year-olds, M = 25.55, SD = 3.10), and 353 adults (31-year-olds and older, M = 46.22, SD = 12.11). Gender distribution was uneven over the three age groups with 47.0%, 28.9%, and 41.1% males respectively. Therefore, all of the analyses were done a second time with all of the cases being weighted for gender distribution in order to see if this would affect my results. Weights were calculated by dividing the population distribution with the sample distribution. Information concerning gender distribution in the Dutch population was obtained fromstatline.cbs.nl3 in August 2011. None of the weighted analyses showed different results and all of the results in the remainder of this paper have been based on the data without weights.
Contacts. First of all, the participants were asked how many contacts they had on their profile. After that, the respondents reported under which conditions they had added someone to their list of contacts. Multiple options could be chosen from the following: if people send me a request (request), to get to know someone (get to know), if I met someone previously (met before), if it is a friend of a friend (friend of friend), if that person looks interesting (interesting), if I know him well (well known), and if he is popular or famous (popular). Finally, respondents were asked to select from a list what sort of contacts they included on their profile. Categories were collapsed into known from the Internet, family, friends (i.e. friends, close friends, sports/hobby friends, and school friends), and other (i.e. friends of friends, colleagues, and acquaintances). Next, respondents indicated from which category they had the most contacts.
Information disclosure. Next, to measure information sharing, the information shared on one’s profile was differentiated from the information shared through public posts. Participants were asked to indicate whether they shared each of the following 12 types of profile information using yes/no questions: name, age, gender, birthday, address (city), address (street name and number), e-mail, relationship status, current work or school, religion, interests, and phone number. Afterwards, respondents were asked how frequently they shared a public post on their profile by using on a 7-point scale: 1) never; 2) once a month; 3) several times a month; 4) once a week; 5) several times a week; 6) once a day; 7) several times a day. Furthermore, respondents were asked if they had discussed the following 11 topics in their public posts by using yes/no questions: health, school/work results, finance, relationships, family, religion, politics, parties, emotional topics, personal success, and personal worries. Respondents who answered yes also indicated whether they discussed the topic elaborately, quite elaborately, or not elaborately. Generally, if shared, the topics were not discussed elaborately by the majority of respondents (66.9% to 84.6%). The variable was therefore reduced to a dichotomous shared or not shared scale.
Primary use SNSs. Respondents were asked to select their main reason for using their profiles from the following list of options: meet new people (i.e. to make new friends and to get to know others better), socialise (i.e. to see what others I know are doing, to stay in touch with people I know more often, and to talk with people I know more often), peer pressure (i.e. everyone I know also uses it), self-presentation (i.e., to show who I am), work/school related (i.e., for my work or school), and other. As less than 2% of all respondents reported work/school related as main reason, this reason was included in the category other for analysis. Similarly, only 2% of all the respondents reported self-presentation as main reason. However, this category was maintained as it is directly related to a hypothesis.
Privacy settings. Respondents were asked whether they had accessed the privacy settings menu (accessed), limited access to their profile for contacts only (outside), made groups between their contacts and manipulated what information is available for each group (inside), and having blocked provider’s access to the information on their profile (unavailable). The last setting is in fact not available on SNSs and was included as a control to see social desirable answer patterns. Response possibilities were I know and I have done so, I know how to but I did not do so, I don’t know how, but I let someone do it, and I don’t know how and I have not let someone do so. The majority of respondents reported having manipulated the settings themselves or not at all. Therefore, responses were collapsed into the dichotomous scale done and not done.
The main focus in this article is to explore the differences among the age groups for several different variables. One-way ANOVA and χ2 analysis have been used for this purpose. For each variable the appropriate analysis has been made and the main statistic has been investigated to give an indication of significant differences among the age groups. If this statistic is significant, the differences among the individual age groups can be explored for patterns. For this purpose, Bonferroni post hoc analyses are done in case of the one-way ANOVA. Adjusted standardised residuals are investigated to help interpret χ2 analysis; for significant χ2 results an adjusted standardised residual greater than 1.9 (or smaller than -1.9) indicates that there is a significant difference from the total percentage.
To investigate the behaviour on SNSs in relation to relationship development, the number of contacts respondents reported was compared first. A significant age effect was found concerning the number of contacts respondents reported, F(2, 999) = 61.84, p < .001 (η2 = 0.11). Post hoc analysis showed that adolescents (M = 197, SD = 173.15) reported significantly more contacts than young adults (M = 123, SD = 89.53), who in turn reported significantly more contacts than adults (M = 74, SD = 160.71). These results support the hypothesis (1a) that adolescents have more contacts on SNSs compared to young adults and adults.
Next, the reasons for adding a contact to a profile were explored to explore the hypothesis (1b) that adolescents will be more likely to add contacts on SNSs they do not know to explore possible friendships compared to young adults and adults. Table 1 provides an overview of the respondents’ responses. Only 9.5% of all respondents reported that they added contacts in order to get to know them. Instead, most respondents add contacts that are well known to them (71.0%), followed by adding contacts who they have met before (49.2%), when requested (32.6%), who are interesting (20.6%), who are a friend of a friend (15.2%) or, because they are popular (3.6%).
With the exception of adding contacts who are well known, which was the category selected by the majority of all respondents from each age group, an age effect was found for all reasons. Inspecting the cells with an adjusted standardized residual with an absolute value of 2.0 or higher shows which age groups deviate significantly from the total percentage of respondents who report a specific reason. Significantly fewer adolescents, but more adults reported the reason Request, χ2 (2, 1002) = 13.51, p = .001. The reason Get to know someone was reported by more adolescents and fewer adults in support of the hypothesis (1b), χ2 (2, 1002) = 7.43, p = .024. The reason Met before was reported by significantly more adolescents and young adults, but by fewer adults, χ2 (2, 1002) = 46.74, p < .001. The reason Friend of friend was reported by significantly fewer adults, χ2 (2, 1002) = 7.27, p = .026. Significantly more young adults, but fewer adults reported the reason Interesting, χ2 (2, 1002) = 19.27.41, p < .001. Finally, the reason Popular was reported by significantly more adolescents, but by fewer young adults and adults, χ2 (2, 1002) = 20.01, p < .001.
The third hypothesis concerning relationship (1c) development predicted that adolescents would be more likely to report that they mainly used SNSs to meet new people compared to young adults and adults. A significant age effect was found, χ2 (8, 1002) = 54.15, p < .001, and Table 2 gives and overview of the reported primary reasons for using the profile. Few respondents reported to mainly use their profile to meet new people (3.1%). Instead, most respondents reported to use their profile to socialise with people they already know (63.8%), followed by peer pressure (16.8%), other (14.5%), and self-presentation (1.9%). Upon investigating the adjusted standardised residuals to explore the age effect it was apparent that significantly more young adults, but significantly fewer adolescents, report socialise as the main reason and significantly more adolescents report peer pressure as the main reason for using SNSs. These results provide no support for the hypothesis (1c) as no differences were found between the age groups for meet new people.
Finally, respondents’ contact lists were explored. The majority of respondents reported that they had friends and family among their contacts, 96.2% and 92.7% respectively, while only 17.7% of respondents had contacts from know from the Internet, and 86.3% had contacts from other. In the fourth hypothesis (1d), I formulated the expectation that adults will be more likely to have family members as contacts on SNSs compared to young adults and adults. Of all the respondents, 21.2% reported family as the main contact category. A majority of 60.8% reported friends as the main contact category, while only 2.8% of respondents reported to have known from the internet as main contact category. In the end, 15.4% of respondents reported having other as their main contact category.
Table 3 shows the respondents’ responses that have been divided by age group to the question from which category they have most contacts on their profile. An age effect was found, χ2 (6, 1002) = 124.54, p < .001. Investigation of the adjusted standardised residuals shows that, in support of the hypothesis (1d), the category of family was reported as the main category by more adults, but fewer adolescents and young adults. Friends was reported as main category by significantly more adolescents, but fewer adults. Other and known from the internet were reported by significantly fewer adolescents, while significantly more young adults reported these categories as their main contact category.
Next, the behaviour on SNSs in relation to identity development was investigated. The first hypothesis (2a) concerning identity development predicted that adolescents and young adults post more frequently on SNSs compared to adults. Of all respondents, 14.6% reported to post daily (once or several times), 38.5% to post weekly, 34.1% to post monthly and 12.8% to post never. An age effect was found to indicate differences between the age groups, F(2, 999) = 21.61, p < .001 (η2 = 0.04). Post hoc analysis show support for the hypothesis (2a): both adolescents (M = 4.07, SD = 1.78) and young adults (M = 3.85, SD = 1.60) report a significantly higher frequency of posting compared to adults (M = 3.25, SD = 1.74), but they do not differ significantly from each other.
The following hypothesis (2b) concerning identity development predicted that adolescents and young adults tend to post more topics on SNSs compared adults. First, the topics addressed in the posts on the profile were investigated. On a whole, most respondents shared posts concerning family (50.6%), parties (66.8%), school or work results (48.5%) and personal achievements (53.3%), while hardly anyone shared posts concerning money (4.5%), religion (7.3%), or politics (12.3%). Generally, if shared, the topics were not discussed elaborately by the majority of respondents (66.9% to 84.6%). A significant age effect was found, F(2, 999) = 38.09, p < .001 (η2 = 0.07). Post hoc analysis again showed support for the hypothesis (2b): young adults (M = 4.49, SD = 2.94) share significantly more topics than adolescents (M = 3.52, SD = 2.63), but both adolescents and young adults share significantly more topics than adults (M = 2.61, SD = 2.57).
Next, the amount of profile information that the respondents shared was investigated. Overall, few respondents shared sensitive information on their profile, such as their telephone number (4.1%) or street address (7.1%), whereas basic information, such as name (97.8%), age (88.8%), gender (93.8%), and birthday (80.5%), were disclosed by most respondents. A significant age effect was found for the number of topics shared by respondents, F(2, 999) = 10.75, p < .001 (η2 = 0.02). Post hoc analysis showed partial support for the hypothesis (2b): young adults shared significantly more profile information (M = 7.05, SD = 2.21) compared to both adolescents (M = 6.26, SD = 2.01), and adults (M = 6.49, SD = 2.34), with the latter not differing from each other.
The third hypothesis (2c) concerned whether adolescents and young adults would be more likely to report that they mainly used the SNSs for self-presentation compared to adults. Table 2 showed that less than 2% of all respondents reported self-presentation as a primary reason for using SNSs and no differences were found between the age groups. As a consequence, these results do not support this hypothesis (2c).
The final hypothesis (3) concerned the use of privacy settings by adolescents, young adults, and adults. More young adults are expected to have adjusted their privacy settings compared to adolescents and adults. Table 4 provides an overview of the responses concerning the adjustment of privacy settings. Of all the respondents, 88.9% have accessed the privacy settings menu (Accessed), 86.3% adjusted the access to their profile for contacts only (Outside), 69.3% made groups between their contacts and manipulating which information is available for each group (Inside), and 41.6% reported to have blocked provider’s access to the information on their profile (Unavailable).
A significant age effect was found for accessed, χ2 (2, 1002) = 28.04, p < .001, outside, χ2 (2, 1002) = 15.34, p < .001, and inside, χ2 (2, 1002) = 10.77, p = .005. In support of the hypothesis (3), significantly more young adults reported accessed, outside, and inside, while significantly fewer adults report to having done so compared to the total percentage.
The goal of this paper was to investigate whether the online behaviour of adolescents, young adults, and adults could be linked back to developmental goals. For this purpose the developmental goals of relationship and identity development (through self-presentation) were distinguished. Overall, the results support the idea that the differences in behaviour on SNSs between adolescents, young adults, and adults are related to their differing developmental goals. Next, the findings in relation to each of the developmental goals will be discussed.
The reported behaviour on SNSs by respondents in this study supports the hypotheses that relationship development related behaviour was primarily present among adolescents when compared to young adults and adults. In keeping with previous findings, adolescents reported to have most contacts which were primarily friends, but they were also more likely than adults to add contacts to their SNS profile so that they could get to know them (Christofides et al., 2012; Pfeil et al., 2009). These findings align with the fact that relationship development is an important developmental goal during adolescence (Boneva et al., 2006, p. 618; Brown, 1990) as both behaviours are related to finding new friendships. I also found that more than young adults and adults, adolescents reported that they make use of SNSs due to peer pressure, which further emphasizes the important role peers play during adolescence (see also Walrave, Vanwesenbeeck, & Heirman, 2012); adolescents need to have a profile on an SNS or they could miss out on the online interactions between friends (Raynes-Goldie, 2010).
Overall, only a few respondents reported that they had added unknown contacts or that they primarily used their SNS profile to meet new people. Instead, respondents reported adding contacts already known to them and that they used the sites to socialise with their contacts. This result replicates previous studies stating that SNSs are primarily used to interact with people already known to the individual and to maintain existing relationships as opposed to forming new relationships (Lampe et al., 2006; Lenhart & Madden, 2007; Subrahmanyam & Greenfield, 2008).
Furthermore, the results showed that the behaviour of older respondents related to the need for relationship development differed as predicted. During young adulthood, the need to explore new friendships was expected to become less as young adults instead focus more on developing existing relationships into more intimate and satisfying relationships (Erikson, 1968). This was reflected in the results as young adults were fewest to report to use SNSs to meet new people, but instead most of them reported to socialise on the sites.
Adults in turn, were expected to have the least need of SNS for relationship development. Previous work has argued that during adulthood, less time is spent with friends (Blieszner & Roberto, 2004, p.172; Hartup & Stevens, 1999). Indeed, adults reported having the fewest contacts and a third of the adults reported having primarily family as their main contact group, while only 10 and 15 percent of adolescents and young adults reported this. In addition, more adults than adolescents reported that they add contacts after a request was send which indicates a more passive approach to their online profile compared to adolescents who are actively making use of the sites to explore new friendships.
Similar support was found for the hypotheses concerning identity development. Adolescents were found to share more information and post more frequently compared to adults. This behavioural difference is likely related to the fact that adolescents are still actively developing their identity in the presence of their peers (Brown, 1990; Erikson, 1959) whereas adults have already established stable identities. According to Arnett (2006), the need for identity development persists into young adulthood. My findings reflected this as young adults reported to post as frequently as adolescents and to address even more topics.
However, the results suggest that information sharing on SNSs is not necessarily primarily related to the need for identity development for respondents. Only 1.9 percent of all respondents reported to use the site primarily for self-presentation, while over 60 percent of all respondents reported that they used SNSs to socialise with their friends. The differences in information sharing could instead also be related to the different phases of relationship development that adolescents and young adults find themselves in. Posting information on SNSs has previously been related to relationship development (Steijn & Schouten, 2013), thus explaining why adolescents and young adults post more frequently on SNSs as compared to adults. In addition, that young adults were found to post about more diverse topics compared to adolescents could be related to the fact that young adults want to develop more intimate and satisfying relationships (Erikson, 1968). Interpersonal communication theories, such as social penetration theory (Altman & Taylor, 1973), generally posit that not only the frequency of self-disclosures, but also the number of topics disclosed are related to more intimacy in a relationship.
Finally, young adults were found to make more use of the privacy settings provided by SNSs compared to adults. This supports previous findings which found that young adults make more use of the privacy settings compared to adolescents and adults (Christofides, et al., 2012; Madden & Smith, 2010). It was also found that young adults are most active users of the privacy settings which could be related to the fact that they have the strongest incentive to keep their offline identity separate from their online identity. An increasing number of reports claim that employers screen future employees’ online profiles (Abril, Levin, & Del Riego, 2012; “Réseaux sociaux: comment réagissent les recruteurs face à un détail gênant sur un candidat”, 2013).
The results show the importance of distinguishing young adulthood from both adolescence and adults as a distinct age group. Due to many societal changes taking place during young adulthood- during this phase in life most individuals leave their parental homes, start working, and some even marry- a great deal of variation can be expected between young adults, even more so than for either adolescents or adults. For example, while one could make rather accurate predictions on the marital state of a 16-year-old and a 32-year-old, such accuracy lacks the prediction on the marital state of a 25-year-old (Arnett, 2000). Future studies are therefore recommended to distinguish young adults from alongside adolescents and adults when discussing young versus old.
Even though I have interpreted the results from a developmental perspective, several alternative explanations might exist for the findings presented. One alternative explanation for some of the findings could be that simple time constraints associated with adult life (e.g., work, chores and family) explain why adults have fewer contacts and post less often. Christofides and colleagues (2012) for example found that a relationship existed between the fact that adolescents spend more time on SNSs and their higher information disclosure. However, the results here do not only report differences in frequency or number of contacts, but also differences concerning the motivation to use SNS and type of contacts, which in turn, are also consistent with a developmental perspective, but which should not necessarily be affected by time constraints. In other words, although this paper can not rule out all of the alternative explanations that could possibly underlie the differences observed between young and old, the differences presented generally appear to have a consistent link with a developmental perspective. As such, taking the developmental perspective into account may play a vital role in our understanding of online behaviour and the differences herein between young and old.
Limitations and Recommendations
As with many other studies, several limitations should be taken into account when interpreting the results presented here. First of all, 41.6 percent of respondents reported to have blocked the SNS provider from accessing their data. However, this is not a real privacy setting and impossible in reality. Therefore, social desirability may have influenced the results. This may indicate that some of the responses, especially the responses concerning the privacy settings, are affected by a social desirable response bias. However, since this bias was evenly spread over the age groups, it should not affect the comparative results of this study much.
Second, respondents were only asked to report their primary use of the site. It is possible that for many individuals self-presentation could have been a secondary reason to have an SNS profile. As a result, the number of individuals who use the site to meet new people or for self-presentation is most likely underrepresented here. The current study decided to ask only about their single most prominent use in order to force respondents to make a decision in regard to what motivation was the most important to them. Future studies should consider obtaining both all the uses respondents have for their SNS profiles and which ones they consider to be the most important.
Third, future studies may want to take a closer look at the relationship between online behaviour and developmental goals. The exact role of developmental goals was not yet clear when data were collected. As a result, my surveys did not include any measures that directly assess developmental goals. Survey material is available which allow the assessment of developmental goals such as identity development, for example, the “Ego Identity Process Questionnaire” or the “Extended Objective Measure of Ego Identity Status II” (Balistreri, Busch-Rossnagel, & Geisinger, 1995; Schwartz, 2004). Future studies could include such measurements in their designs so as to allow that a direct analysis of the relationship between developmental goals and behaviour on SNSs or other social media be made.
Fourth, the results presented here indicate that a developmental perspective is feasible in order to understand online behaviour and the differences between young and old. One difficulty at this time is that SNSs are a relatively new technological development, and as a consequence the individuals who are supposedly a part of the new young generation are at the moment still young and therefore they are also expected to differ in behaviour from older individuals from a developmental perspective.
Differences in online behaviour are likely related to both generational and developmental factors. The internet and SNSs offer new ways for social interaction and how we communicate with each other. This makes it inevitable that the current young generation who grows up with these new technologies will differ from previous generations. However, it is important to be able to distinguish between which aspects of online behaviour are developmental characteristics and which aspects are generational characteristics. This study has shown that a great deal of online behaviour appears to be related to developmental factors, which suggests that the current young generation’s online behaviour is not necessarily much different from how previous generations behaved offline (boyd, 2008; Herring, 2008; Marwick et al., 2010).
Ideally longitudinal data are required to provide conclusive evidence, whether we are dealing with a generational difference -the observed behaviour will persists over time and the young generation has become opener than older generations before them- or whether they are developmental- which suggests that the observed behaviour will change as the individual grows older and young individuals today will share less when they grow older. Yet, based on the results presented here, it can be concluded that a developmental perspective to understand the differences between age groups remains a viable option.
The current paper shows that the developmental perspective is a viable option to understand online behaviour and should not be overlooked when investigating the differences between younger and older SNS users. SNSs have become important social tools that are used by both young and old. SNSs do not appear to have changed the nature of the developmental needs that adolescents, young adults, adults have. Instead, they have changed how the associated behaviour manifests. Nowadays, social interactions take place online and have become more visible, and with it the differences that exist between the behaviours of young and old. In this study, I have shown support that the online behaviour still appears motivated by the same developmental goals that have always been associated with the various age groups. As such, a developmental perspective can offer a great contribution to our understanding of individuals’ use of current technologies, but also of future technologies. Regardless of the form technology will take, their use will likely for some part be motivated by the same developmental goals.
3. Through this site CBS (Centraal Bureau voor Statistiek) provides up-to-date statistics concerning the Dutch population.
This work was supported by The Netherlands Organisation of Scientific research (Grant Number: 360 20 241).
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