Pew Survey of Teens Illuminates Digital Friendships

Posted by | August 10, 2015 | News | One Comment
Source: Skokie Public Library via photopin cc

Pew Research just released the findings of a new research project. Researchers surveyed teens ages 13–17 nationally this fall and spring, along with some in-person focus groups conducted earlier in the year.

Here are some of the (quite!) interesting findings on meeting friends and hanging out digitally:

  • For one, 57% of teens have met a new friend online, and 29% say they’ve met five or more friends this way. Only 20% of teens have met an online friend in person, though.
  • More boys than girls make friends online—61% and 52%, respectively—though the numbers are still significant. Older teens are more likely to make friends online than younger. Of teens age 15 to 17, 60% have made online friends, versus only 51% of 13- to 14-year-olds.
  • A majority of teens make online friends via social media (64%), but a significant amount also meet through video games (36%). These numbers are skewed by gender differences—57% of boys make friends through gaming, and only 13% of girls.

Compared to a 2008 Pew Research report, which stated that 97% of teens play games, this survey found that only 72% play (on a computer, console, or portable device). It’s unclear why there’s such a divergence in numbers here. Personally I find it highly unlikely that 25% of teenagers have simply lost interest in games; data from other sources like the ESA yearly reports give no indication that gaming is becoming less popular. In fact, the opposite seems true. It’s possible that this latest survey netted a different group of teens than the first, or that the question was asked in a different way.

Regardless, it’s still a vast majority, and even more so for boys than for girls—84% versus 54%—though notably, more than half of teenage girls play games, which is nothing to dismiss. Gaming also isn’t a solitary pastime for most:

  • Of teen gamers, 83% say they play with others in person. And 75% say they play with others online. Of those online gamers, 89% are playing friends they know in person, and 54% are playing with friends they’ve met online. Finally, 52% play with others who are not necessarily friends, though as we’ve seen, some may become friends as time goes on.
  • When it comes to gender differences, the impact is substantial. Of boys, 38% share their gamer handle (like a username) as one of the first three pieces of information they exchange when they meet someone they’d like to befriend. Only 7% of girls do.
  • Of boys, 16% play games with friends on a near-daily basis, and 35% do on a weekly basis. Among boys who play with friends, 71% do so via voice communication.

These numbers aren’t necessarily surprising when taking into account gaming culture in general; girls and women tend to have negative (sometimes extremely negative—stalking, sexual harassment, etc.) experiences when gaming online. A recent study found that even when women are on the same team as male teammates, those male teammates will react negatively to being outperformed by them. The same is not true of other male teammates.

In light of this culture, it’s not shocking that girls are less likely to seek out friendships in gaming or play games with voice communication channels. (I can offer some personal backup here as well, as a young women who played online games as a teenager, I wouldn’t dare touch the Vent headset that my brother and dad used.)

Interestingly, Pew reports that “when playing games with others online, many teen gamers (especially boys) connect with their fellow players via voice connections in order to engage in collaboration, conversation and trash-talking.” The latter bit stands out to me—trash-talking is innately pretty negative, but it also tends to involve instances of misogyny, homophobia, racism, and other go-to methods of putting someone down. Young kids don’t always know the impact of what they’re saying when they reach for the nearest nasty phrase they can think of. This could be a heads up to have a conversation with kids (especially boys) who play online games and talk about what language is appropriate or not. It’s important to allow for an environment and culture where teenage girls feel just as comfortable making friends and playing online as teenage boys, because “all this playing, hanging out and talking while playing games leads many teens to feel closer to friends.”

So, despite some of the unfortunate implications of the latter part of the study, there’s also a lot of good news here. Games are bringing kids together, helping them make friends, and gaming is not by any means a solitary activity, despite its bad image in the media.

Keezy Young

About Keezy Young

Keezy is a gamer, illustrator, and designer. Her background is in teaching and tutoring kids from ages 9 to 19, and she's led workshops for young women in STEM. She is also holds a certificate in teaching English. Her first memory of gaming is when her dad taught her to play the first Warcraft when she was five. You can find her at Key of Zee and on Twitter @KeezyBees.