11/09/2011 09:35 am ET | Updated Jan 09, 2012

The Good, the Bad and the (Not So) Ugly of Teen Social Networking

It's not easy being a teen these days.

Apart from the usual adolescent issues of friends, homework, parents and just plain angst, kids have also got to navigate a whole new world of social networking with all the highs and lows that this can bring: cyberbullying, sexting, overuse, oversharing and overexposure, just to name a few of the pitfalls. But there are benefits, too, some of which are only just emerging.

Help is at hand in the form of a new Pew Internet research report called, "Teens, Kindness and Cruelty on Social Network Sites". My organization, the Family Online Safety Institute (FOSI) partnered with Pew with support from Cable in the Classroom, to look at how teens learn how to behave online, what experiences they are having and what they've learned from those experiences. (Disclosure: FOSI receives funding from Facebook, Google, Microsoft and two dozen other member companies, though none of them funded this project or had any influence on it.)

Virtually all (95%) of teens are now online and 77% of these online teens are users of social networking sites. What's interesting is that 69% of teens say their peers are mostly kind to one another, but 88% say they've witnessed people being mean and cruel to another person on a social networking site and 15% have been the target of that meanness.

Teens who have witnessed online cruelty report that people most often appear to ignore the situation, while 84% have seen their peers stepping in to defend someone and tell others to stop their bad behavior. Sadly, a majority of teens say that their own reaction has been to ignore meanness when they see it on Facebook or other social media sites.

But here's some heartening news. Teens report that their parents are the biggest influence on shaping what they think is appropriate or inappropriate behavior on the Internet or when using a cell phone. Teachers come a close second and friends, peers and siblings also feature in offering good advice and counsel on how best to behave online.

On the privacy front, most kids have gotten the message about keeping their profiles private. In fact 62% say they have done so, while a further 19% have partially private settings. Nearly one in five, however, has fully public settings. This may have to do with another finding: that 44% of teens have lied about their age to gain access to a website or online account. If a 12 year-old says she's 21 when she signs up for a Facebook account, her settings are automatically set to public. If she waits a year and signs up at 13 (the minimum age on Facebook) her settings will be defaulted to friends of friends.

Passwords have become a currency of friendship. Rather troubling is the finding that nearly a third of online teens have shared their password with a friend, boyfriend or girlfriend. This rises to 47% amongst teen girls aged 14 to 17. This level of sharing has obvious implications for teens' safety, security and the management of their online reputations.

Teens become more circumspect the older they get when it comes to posting content that might affect their reputation later on. Forty-six per cent of younger teens (12-13) withhold potentially damaging postings whereas 67% of 17 year olds have kept back posts they'd rather not have a college admission officer or potential employer see.

A remarkable 80% of parents who use social media and have kids on Facebook and other social network sites have friended their kids. And, similar to the findings of our recent survey on parental controls, 54% of parents report blocking, filtering or monitoring their child's online activities with 34% using controls on their kids cell phones.

While sexting has hit the headlines, the actual occurrence remains relatively low with 18% of teens admitting to receiving a "sexually suggestive nude or nearly nude photo or video" and only 2% saying they had sent such a photo of themselves to someone else.

Finally, teens generally report positive personal outcomes from being on social networking sites with nearly two thirds saying that they had an experience that made them feel good about themselves and 58% saying they felt closer to another person because of an experience on a social network.

So there's much to digest from this report. We are in the middle of a remarkable social experiment as a generation of kids grows up with all-pervasive Internet access together with the most powerful social networking tools ever developed. We simply don't know the implications of all this connectedness and these figures show it is a lot more complex, for good and not so good reasons, than some newspaper headlines (and politicians) would have us think.