Ninety-five percent of all teens ages 12-17 are now online, and 80 percent of online teens are users of social media sites.

As social media use has become pervasive in the lives of American teens, a new study finds that 69 percent of the teenagers who use social networking sites say their peers are mostly kind to one another on such sites. Still, 88 percent say they have witnessed people being mean or cruel to another person on the sites, and 15 percent say they have been the target of mean or cruel behavior themselves.

The findings are detailed in a new report called “Teens, Kindness and Cruelty on Social Network Sites: How American teens navigate the new world of ‘digital citizenship,’” from the Pew Research Center’s Internet & American Life Project.

Adult social network users are less likely to say they witness or experience this type of behavior, but they still report that it is prevalent. In fact, 69 percent of the adults who use social networking sites say they have seen people be mean and cruel to others on those sites.

The study, released Nov. 9, examines teens’ behavior and experiences on social network sites, their privacy and safety practices, and the role of parents in digital safekeeping.

Social media use is widespread among teens. Fully 95 percent of all teens ages 12-17 are now online, and 80 percent of online teens are users of social media sites. Teens of all ages and backgrounds are witnessing these mean behaviors online and are reacting in a variety of ways:

  • Ninety percent of teen social media users say they have ignored the mean behavior they have witnessed on a social network site.
  • Eighty percent say they have personally defended a victim of meanness and cruelty.
  • Seventy-nine percent say they have told someone to stop their mean behavior on a social network site.
  • Twenty-one percent say they have personally joined in on the harassment of others on a social network site.

“Social networking sites have created new spaces for teens to interact, and they witness a mixture of altruism and cruelty on those sites,” said Amanda Lenhart, lead author of the report. “For most teens, these are exciting and rewarding spaces. But the majority have also seen a darker side. And for a subset of teens, the world of social media isn’t a pretty space, because it presents a climate of drama and mean behavior.”

In addition to probing the behaviors that teens witness or experience on social network sites, the study also examines instances of bullying that happen online and offline. Among teens, 19 percent report having experienced bullying anywhere—in person, by text message, by phone call, or online—in the last 12 months.

Some statistics include:

  • Twelve percent of all teens report being bullied in person in the last 12 months.
  • Nine percent of all teens say they were bullied by text message in the last 12 months.
  • Eight percent say they have experienced some type of online bullying—such as through eMail, a social network site, or instant messaging.
  • Seven percent of teens say they’ve been bullied by voice calls over the phone.

Teens’ actions and interaction within these social networks produce positive and negative outcomes. A majority of teens who use social network sites (78 percent) reported a positive outcome from their social media interactions, such as feeling good about themselves or deepening a friendship with another person.

At the same time, some 41 percent of social media-using teens reported at least one negative outcome:

  • Twenty-five percent of social media-using teens had an experience on a social network site that resulted in a face-to-face argument or confrontation with someone.
  • Twenty-two percent had an experience that ended their friendship with someone.
  • Thirteen percent had an experience that caused a problem with their parents.
  • Thirteen percent felt nervous about going to school the next day because of an experience on a social network site.
  • Eight percent got into a physical fight with someone else because of something that happened on a social network site.
  • Six percent got in trouble at school because of an experience on a social network site.

Teens say they receive advice about online safety from a wide variety of people in their lives. Parents are the top source, with 86 percent of teens saying they have received advice from their parents about how to use the internet safely and responsibly. Seventy percent have received advice from a teacher or other adult at school.

Teens report that their parents are the biggest influence on shaping what they think is appropriate or inappropriate behavior when going online or using a cell phone. At the same time, 18 percent of teens say that “no one” has influenced them about their attitudes toward online behavior.

When teens have a specific problem, such as seeing mean or cruel behavior on a social network site, 36 percent seek advice on how to cope. Those teens who do reach out for advice in these situations tend to gravitate toward their friends and peers (53 percent) and parents (36 percent), and they almost universally say the advice they get is helpful.

Most teens with social networking profiles (62 percent) say that the profile they use most often is set to private, so only their friends can see the content they post. One in five (19 percent) say their profile is partially private, meaning that only friends of friends or a network can see what they post, while 17 percent say their most-used profile is fully public.

Families have adopted a number of approaches to modern digital parenting. Many parents talk with teens about online safety or “friend” their children on social networks, while others have adopted a more technical approach toward monitoring their child’s online behavior:

  • Eighty percent of parents who use social media and who also have a child who uses social media have friended their child on these sites.
  • Seventy-seven percent of parents of internet users have checked which websites their child visits, up from 65 percent of parents who did so in 2006.
  • Sixty-six percent of parents have checked to see what information is available online about their child.
  • Fifty-four percent of parents of internet users report using parental controls or other means of filtering, monitoring, or blocking their child’s online activities.

While many parents have become friends with their children on social media sites, problems still can crop up. One in five teens who have been friended by their parents (18 percent) have experienced a problem with their parents because of something that happened on a social networking site, compared with 5 percent of such teens who are not friends with their parents on a social networking site.

“When a child accepts a parent’s friend request, it doesn’t necessarily mean that the parent has a backstage pass to their child’s social life,” said Mary Madden, co-author of the report. “Teens can present a limited profile to certain friends and are active users of private messaging channels, so the content that parents see may represent just a small fraction of the activity on their teen’s profile.”

The report, which is based on seven focus groups with teens and a nationally representative survey of 799 youth ages 12-17 and their parents, was conducted by the Pew Research Center’s Internet & American Life Project in partnership with the Family Online Safety Institute (FOSI) and with the support of Cable in the Classroom.