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de Zwart, M; Lindsay, D; Henderson, M; Phillips, M --- "Randoms vs Weirdos: Teen use of social networking sites and perceptions of legal risk" [2011] UMonashLRS 1

Last Updated: 8 November 2012

Teen use of social networking sites
and perceptions of legal risk


Mainstream media regularly features reports focussing upon the risks associated with Facebook and other social networking sites (‘SNS’). For example, in December 2010, a 17-year-old girl posted photos of naked AFL footballers to her Facebook profile, generating a major scandal in the AFL community and further highlighting the privacy risks associated with social networking.1 In March 2011, a Facebook page purporting to be an open invitation to a party to be held by a schoolgirl in Chatswood, NSW, displaying her residential address, attracted 200 000 responses saying they would attend.2 The party was cancelled and police attended to ensure any potential revellers were sent home. Yet, despite the widespread coverage of SNS risks, usage figures continue to grow.

The uptake of social networking by teens indicates that such services perform a valued role in the social lives of teens, particularly in the areas of communication and identity exploration. This article reports on research to identify the risks relevant to teens when using these services and provide them with practical guidance regarding how to miminise and avoid such risks. The authors, drawn from the education and law disciplines, undertook to ascertain the actual scale and nature of use of SNS among teenagers in years 7 to 10, the perceptions of risk associated with such use and the actual legal risks. The project produced both a report detailing the outcomes of the research and an educational resource to be distributed to all Victorian schools that may be used to assist students, teachers and parents to discuss and critically consider the risks and legal implications of using SNS.3 This article discusses some key outcomes of the study related to use of SNS and perceptions of legal risks.

The study surveyed 1004 middle school students (years 710), 204 middle school teachers and 49 parents of middle school students. In addition, focus group interviews were conducted with 58 middle school students and 21 middle school teachers. The data was collected from 17 Victorian secondary schools from state (government run), Catholic and independent systems as well as metropolitan and rural locations. A comprehensive review of the relevant literature, the SNS terms of service and the Australian and international regulatory environment was also undertaken.

The research concluded that while use of social networking services was integrated into the daily lives of the majority of Victorian middle school students, there was a need to empower students with awareness of the risks they may face in using SNS and to educate them regarding how best to deal with those risks. In particular, there was a distinct gap in the understandings by adults and teenagers regarding how these risks may be managed.

Legal Risks

Much of the current literature dealing with risks of SNS and online behaviour generally focuses upon abusive behaviour, such as cyber-bullying and grooming. Little attention has been given to other, potentially more common, legal risks faced by youth using SNS. This study attempts to address the gap in that literature. The key areas identified in the literature review and confirmed by the survey results as relevant to giving rise to legal liability for young people using SNS were:

In Australia, policy responses to the use of SNS by young people have largely been characterised as part of programs promoting ‘cyber-safety’. The most recent initiative in this area is the reference to the Commonwealth Joint Select Committee on Cyber-Safety, established in September 2010. The Committee, whose terms of reference include inquiring into matters associated with cyber-safety threats, such as: abuse of children online, cyber-bullying, stalking and grooming; exposure to illegal and inappropriate content; identity theft and breaches of privacy, presented its Interim Report in June 2011.4 That Report made a number of recommendations regarding the need for educational strategies for school age (and younger) children, as well as increased teacher training.5 There may be a need, based on evidence from studies such as that outlined in this article, to undertake reform of Australia’s privacy and other laws, to accommodate the widespread use of SNS by Australian youth. However, specific recommendations for reform are outside the scope of this article. It is hoped that the recommendations arising from this study will be used as the basis for law reform.

What is a social networking site?

SNS are websites that enable users to post information about themselves, their interests, likes and affiliations and to connect with other users, usually through the construction of a ‘profile’.6 They may be open to the general public or only to subscribers. They may also have other elements such as live chat, instant messaging, and games.

As this research project was directed at investigating the legal risks facing children and young people, the research defined SNS as having three key characteristics:

Notably, the increased availability of browser-enabled devices such as smart phones and iPads, means that access is now available on much smaller devices which also makes it harder for parents and teachers to monitor.

Applying this broad definition, the project survey identified the following SNS as especially relevant to Victorian high school students:

The number of middle school students using SNS

The anonymous survey of 1004 middle school students found that 94.9 per cent of those students reported using at least one SNS. This analysis also indicates that the usage of SNS by students from rural state schools (89.7 per cent) is less than students from metropolitan state schools (97.7 per cent). Despite this difference between metropolitan and rural school students the survey results remain convincing in terms of the prevalence of SNS usage in all middle school years. Facebook was by far the most popular SNS with 93.4 per cent of students using it, followed by MySpace which was used by 26.6 per cent of students. Many of the students used more than one SNS. Therefore, many of the following observations may reflect the particular structure and organisation of material on Facebook, as that is the platform most users are familiar with.

SNS are used equally by male (95.8 per cent) and female (96.3 per cent) middle school students. This is reflected across the year levels with similar percentages of males and females using SNS.

Despite the high level of student use of SNS it was surprising to note that in a separate question 26.9 per cent of students stated that they have not created an online profile that others can see. This is interesting since all SNS, including Facebook, require a profile in one form or another. The response suggests that many students are unaware that the information about themselves which they place on an SNS can, when combined, constitute a profile. For example, when asked about their profile, one student replied: ‘I use Facebook, I don’t make a profile showing what I am like. It just has information about me.’ Such lack of awareness regarding the nature and potential consequences of information disclosure highlights the potential for legal risks to arise in this context, such as privacy issues.

Key findings regarding SNS use by middle school students

Students were asked to explain how they chose which social networking sites to use. 45 per cent indicated that their friends were a significant factor with typical responses being: ‘Whatever [sic] one my friends’ use’ and ‘what my mates had because the whole reason is to socialise with them’. An additional 30 per cent indicated they chose the SNS because they thought it was popular (presumably either with their peer group or through popular media), for example, ‘I reckon everybody likes to use it because it’s popular and people know of it.’ Only 6 per cent of students indicated that family were an important factor when choosing SNS, and only 5 per cent of students reported that they gave the choice little thought. The remaining 14 per cent of students did not answer the question.

One of the students in the focus group interviews also highlighted the potential influence of commercial interests:

Facebook is becoming almost like a marketing thing now, because lots of people use Facebook, phone companies go, ‘Here, 300 hours of free Facebook with this sim card and you get this phone as well, with this plan’. It’s just a marketing thing now, Facebook and Twitter.

The majority of students indicated that they update the information on their SNS on a daily basis and over a quarter of students in each year level update their SNS profile several times a day. A general trend is that the frequency of updating SNS increases across the year levels. Indeed, three quarters of year 10 students
(75.3 per cent) update their SNS at least once every day, compared to 62.3 per cent in Year 7. This increase is partly explained by the way in which the SNS are used by the different year levels. In general, older year levels increasingly use the SNS for regular communication purposes, which in turn means they need to access their SNS more often.

Whilst the various SNS provide a large number of different activities including playing games (such as Farmville in Facebook), creating photo albums, participating in a variety of surveys, identifying their likes, and so on, in order to better understand the social context which makes SNS different from other Web 2.0 applications, this research focused upon the use of SNS by teens to engage with each other.

Overall students indicated that they used SNS to communicate with current friends and especially to stay in touch with friends they rarely see in person. Responses to the surveys clearly indicated that SNS are primarily used to maintain current networks (staying in touch and planning with friends, 89.9 per cent). Expanding the network (making new friends, 40.6 per cent) and sexual interaction (flirting, 24.8 per cent) were less common in students’ reported practices.

The content which students post to SNS

The research gathered information regarding the kinds of content students upload to their own SNS in addition to status updates. This is particularly relevant in identifying potential legal risks such as copyright infringement and disclosure. The most common content posted is photos of themselves (60.9 per cent), closely followed by photos of their friends (52.6 per cent). While posting third party music, video and pictures of others such as celebrities are less popular, these activities are still well represented, for instance while an average of 38.5 per cent of students reported that they posted videos the proportion rises to 69.8 per cent for year 10 students.

As a process of data triangulation students were also asked to identify the types of content posted to SNS by their friends. The pattern was similar to that of their own responses. One of the interesting findings of this question was that 45.6 per cent of students reported that their photos had been posted on their friends’ SNS. In addition, 62.1 per cent of students reported that photos of their friends had been posted on other people’s SNS. Since there are increasing concerns of issues of disclosure through posting of images the survey asked students if they felt concerned about their images being posted by others on their friend’s SNS. Overall 80.3 per cent of students were not concerned. However, 19.7 per cent indicated that they were concerned with this practice.

Perceptions of risk

Students, teachers and parents were asked if they felt that students’ use of SNS included a degree of risk. In this context, ‘risk’ could be interpreted by the respondent as broadly as they chose. In the follow-up open-ended questions, respondents were then asked to elaborate upon the risks or problems that they identified as associated with SNS.

It is perhaps not surprising that students were more likely than their teachers and parents to consider SNS safe. While 48.8 per cent of students recognised that there was some element of risk in using SNS over a quarter of students (28.3 per cent) thought that SNS were safe. Perhaps just as worrying is that 19.6 per cent of students were ambivalent by reporting that the degree of risk was not relevant because it is ‘just what everyone does’. However, not all students have the same perception of risk. While similar percentages of year 7-to-10 students feel that SNS are safe (approximately 25 per cent) there is a decrease across the year levels in students’ perception of an element of risk with a corresponding increase in disregard for risk.

In contrast with students’ responses, their teachers and parents were more cautious about the levels of risk associated with SNS use. Teachers were particularly concerned that, apart from students’ friendship networks, they were at risk of being contacted by undesirable people such as ‘the occasional weirdo’ and ‘anyone, creepy stalker types’.

Visibility of student SNS profiles

While students generally perceived their use of SNS to be safe or only a little bit risky, it is useful to contextualise this in terms of the degree of visibility of their SNS profile. As a general trend, students from years 7 to 10 are increasingly more selective in who can view their profile. However, this means that year 7 students not only have more visible profiles and therefore are at greater risk (of breach of privacy/confidentiality, being contacted by ‘randoms’ etc) but also are more likely to perceive SNS as safe or only a little bit risky which in turn may generate complacency about risk aversion strategies.

Parents were asked about their child’s SNS profile privacy settings. Most parents (71.7 per cent) believed their child’s profile could be viewed by friends or friends of friends while 11 parents (23.9 per cent) indicated that they believed that ‘anyone’ or ‘Every man and his dog’ could access their child’s profile. The remaining two parents were ‘unsure’ about the degree of accessibility of their child’s SNS. Of the 37 parents who had seen their child’s/ ward’s profile, nine reported they ‘were a little concerned with what they saw’, three reported they were ‘very concerned with what they saw’ and 25 reported they were ‘happy with what they saw’.

Perceived risks arising from student use of social networking sites

In an open-ended question, students were asked to explain if there were any risks or problems associated with the use of SNS. A total of 460 students answered this question (out of 1004 survey participants). It is worrying that 21.7 per cent of students who answered this question were unaware or unconcerned about potential risks in using SNS.

Most of the students (61.3 per cent) reported potential risks or problems from unwanted attention from others or cyber-bullying. Both of these concerns reflect the popular concerns of media and government. Students who reported the potential for unwanted attention from others (31.9 per cent) made statements including:

The students who identified cyber-bullying as a potential risk included examples of overt bullying such as ‘Sometimes people bully other kids, because it’s easier to say things over the internet, rather than to their face’. However the students also indicated issues of peer pressure, for example: ‘bullying, peer pressure, self esteem issues based on things like number of friends someone has or photos they have of a party that you weren’t invited to etc’.

A smaller group of students (13.8 per cent) identified security risks relating to their data such as people ‘hacking’ into their SNS account or committing identity theft. For instance, one of the teachers reported:

I have come across a student who showed me a site that was a mirror image of his own. And that person, whoever created it, tried to get his friends to add him on, pretending to be that person. So, yes, you do get imposters there.

However, the purpose of the identity theft was not known by the teacher or clarified by the students.

Another group of students (3.2 per cent) also identified a related issue of privacy, namely ‘invasion of privacy’ and unwelcome disclosure of information about themselves by others. For instance one student in the interviews explained how students who do not have strict privacy settings can disclose information about themselves but also their friends, such as through the tagging (naming) of people in photos.

Another student explicitly indicated they felt there was a risk of corporations gathering SNS profile and usage data for their own interests: ‘The fact that Google can track and monitor my actions and build up a file on me from the actions on my Facebook page. Paedophiles etc are the least of my worries, Google is watching me far more than them’.

Teachers and parents were also asked to identify any risks or problems which they perceived in their students’/child’s use of SNS. The teachers were particularly concerned with issues of cyber-bullying (43.6 per cent of 204 teacher responses), for example: ‘harassment, taunts, make fun of others’. Another key concern was that of grooming or stalking (27 per cent), which one teacher described as ‘Huge risks regarding privacy and targeting by unwholesome sorts’. A third perceived risk was that of identity theft (14.2 per cent) by other students or strangers for a variety of reasons including malicious posting of false information, or the use of the identity for financial gain.

The parents, like the teachers, indicated that they were concerned with cyber-bullying (22.4 per cent of 49 parents) and grooming/stalking (12.2 per cent). Parents also reported risks to privacy in the form of disclosure (14.3 per cent), or as one parent said ‘giving too much info re themselves’. Four parents (8 per cent) felt that there was little or no risk.

Students’ risk reduction strategies

Surveyed students reported an awareness of a variety of strategies for avoiding or dealing with risks associated with SNS use, including ignoring friendship requests from strangers, blocking, deleting or ‘unfriending’ unpleasant or unwanted contacts, setting their profile to ‘private’, not disclosing private information on their profile, changing their password, threatening people who wanted to be added as friends and self-censorship. Only 1 per cent of respondents indicated that they would ask for help or guidance from an adult as a viable strategy. This self-assured nature of all of the students with regards to their safety in using SNS is a characteristic which needs to be researched further.

The majority of students (72.4 per cent) had reported that a stranger had contacted them via SNS which was either unwelcome or unpleasant. These students were then asked what they did in response to that contact. 43.4 per cent of the students reported that they had either deleted (21.9 per cent) or blocked (21.5 per cent) the unwelcome contact. A further 15 per cent of the students reported that they ignored the contact. The remaining 14 per cent of students did not explain if they had responded or what strategy they employed. The strategies employed by the students are reasonable, however it is noteworthy that none of the students reported that they told an adult, notified the SNS provider of an inappropriate contact, or reviewed their own security settings.

Most of the students conveyed the impression that strategies in dealing with risks associated with SNS are common sense. For instance, one student said: ‘Um, don’t post shit that can get you in trouble? Duh!’ Another student explained:

if we get added by some random person we have never heard of, we dont talk to them :| its actually pretty easy to tell if a profile is real or fake anyway. No one i know has ever been lured into a trap by some pedo or something and told anyone they didn’t know where they lived or whatever. We don’t stand in the middle of the street yelling “I LIVE ....” do we? I barely even give my friends personal information (mobile no. etc) over the internet, just in case (most people are the same).

This was similar to most of the responses and is even more succinctly described by one student as: ‘If they sound sus, don’t contact them anymore. If they ask for details like an e-mail address, etc. ignore them eternally. If they sound too innocent, take them for a freak. xD’. However, while the students expressed a confidence in their ability to recognise a ‘fake’, ‘freak’ or someone who is ‘sus’ they do not elaborate how this is achieved.

Summary and recommendations

The results indicate that there is a degree of awareness of risks in using SNS by middle school students, although concerns about risks differ markedly between parents and teachers, on the one hand, and students, on the other. The research findings also indicate that there is a high degree of trial and error in how middle school students are seeking to manage risks associated with SNS use. Moreover, although there is some degree of understanding of legal risks, there is very little clear understanding by students, parents and teachers alike, of the precise nature of the legal risks that may arise from everyday SNS use. On the other hand, there is much more awareness of the more dramatic consequences of cyber-bullying. While there is some awareness of the social context within which use of SNS takes place and some attempt to moderate behaviour accordingly, there seems to be very little awareness of the legal context within which SNS use occurs. Given the likely ongoing importance for teens of using SNS and the outcomes of the research discussed above, the key recommendations arising from this project include:

MELISSA de ZWART teaches law at Adelaide Law School, University of Adelaide and DAVID LINDSAY teaches law at Monash University. MICHAEL HENDERSON is a senior lecturer in the Faculty of Education, Monash University and MICHAEL PHILLIPS is a PhD Candidate, also in the Monash University Faculty of Education.

© 2011 Melissa de Zwart, David Lindsay, Michael Henderson and Michael Phillips



1. Chip Le Grand, ‘St Kilda vows to pursue teenager in AFL club’s photo scandal’,
The Australian (Sydney), 23 December 2010. There have been ongoing ramifications for the St Kilda Football Club, Ricky Nixon
(a player manager) and the girl from these posts. Further allegations, aired via various social media services, were still arising in June 2011.

2. ABC News online, ‘Police warning over Facebook party “hoax”’, 15 March 2011, <> at 15 August 2011.

3. The project was funded by a General Grant from the Victoria Law Foundation, Project G09-010: Guidance for children engaged in social networking on the internet. Both the Report: Teenagers, Legal Risks and Social Networking Sites, March 2011, and the Education Booklet: Will u friend me? Legal Risks and Social Networking Sites, A Legal Resource for Victorian Schools, March 2011, may be downloaded from <> at 15 August 2011.

4. Joint Select Committee on Cyber-Safety, Terms of Reference, 14 May 2010, <> at 15 August 2011.

5. Joint Select Committee on Cyber-Safety, High Wire Act: Cyber-Safety and the Young, Interim Report, June 2011, at 15 August 2011.

6. For discussion of the definition of SNS, see Danah Boyd, and Nicole B. Ellison, ‘Social Network Sites: Definition, History and Scholarship’ (2007) Journal of Computer –Mediated Communication 13(1); and James Grimmelmann, ‘Saving Facebook’ (2009) Iowa Law Review 94: 11371206, 1143.

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