In the past couple years, Twitter has radically changed the face of online communication. This year alone, usage has grown by 900 percent, the company was awarded the “Breakout Company of the Year” web award, and Twitter has spread awareness of such major international events as post-election protests in Iran. Amid this surge in publicity for and excitement about the site, a few reports released surprising findings: teens, by in large, don’t use Twitter.
Based on our findings in Children and Electronic Media issue, this does not surprise us. As the article “Online Communication and Adolescent Relationships” demonstrates, most adolescents use social networking sites to reinforce existing relationships, rather than make new friends. This is contrary to how people use Twitter; much like in the chat rooms of old, they create new networks of friends and acquaintances based on common interests.
Instant messaging, Facebook, and MySpace, on the other hand, allow teens to share personal information and communicate with their friends and existing social networks (in addition to contacting strangers and building new relationships with them). It makes sense, then, that teenagers and young adults seeking ways to reach out to friends helped these communication tools gain enormous popularity.
A study from 2007 found that that 91 percent of teens use social networking sites to keep in touch with friends they see frequently. Although teens may contact strangers and vice versa, this is not the norm for teenage internet use. Rather, teens often use online communication to strengthen existing friendships or gain acceptance in offline peer groups, both of which depend on interacting with the same groups on-and offline and receiving feedback through mechanisms such as “Wall” postings and return messages. In a Dutch study, adolescents who felt they received positive feedback from social networking sites reported higher self-esteem, and the reverse was true as well.
This is not to say that teens do not communicate with strangers. Indeed, many do – but not in the dangerous ways we suppose. Rather, when teens seek out contact with people they don’t know, it is usually for information (on health issues, for example) found at self-help sites or internet forums. Twitter, however, is usually a single-sided conversation used to share news or promote companies and organizations. As the 15-year-old intern behind Morgan Stanley’s report noted, teens often must decide how to allocate a limited texting capacity. They can send targeted text messages to friends. Or they can post updates on Twitter, which in all likelihood will not be seen by those in their social network and may get lost to the internet at large. Adolescents concerned with their social position at school or among a group of friends choose to focus on messages targeted directly to their peers, making Twitter the latest fad of an older crowd.