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Teenagers on social media in southeast Italy – quantitative data

RazvanNicolescu14 December 2015

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In this blog post I will take a look to the quantitative data from my fieldwork, discussing some findings from a questionnaire I conducted with students in their final two years of secondary school in Grano. 539 students participated, mostly aged between 17-19 years old.

More than 90% of respondents were actively using Facebook and 80% WhatsApp. These impressive numbers reflect that in Grano the two services were seen as two complementary facets of sociality: the former being extremely public and the latter more private and personal.

In contrast, most young people did not have a clear idea about what to use Instagram and Twitter for: relatively more students used Twitter primarily to be in contact with friends than to follow celebrities (45 vs. 30%) and many used it to talk to their colleagues, family members, and partners (22%). While Instagram was more clearly used to establish relationships based on shared interests, still many used it primarily to stay in contact with school colleagues (18%) and friends from their hometown (14%). For example, those who were commuting to study in Grano used Instagram to share images from their hometown with school friends and share image from school and Grano with friends from their hometown. Most of the parents and older relatives did not even bother to ask their children what they did on Twitter or Instagram, even less to actually try and log in to these platforms.

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86% of students owned a smartphone and 99% owned or shared at least one computer with their family: 83% owned some sort of mobile computer as opposed to only 16% who owned only a desktop. These figures correspond to a recent OECD report that shows that 65% of Italian families with at least one child have a computer at home, while on average there are just six PCs for every 100 students in Italian schools. In my forthcoming book, I explain how these figures reflect the particular importance of home education in Grano.

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Most children receive their first smartphone at 10-12 years old and parents try to resist decreasing this age further. This is the age when many children also start to use social media, including more controversial platforms such as ask.fm. Throughout their adolescence their mobile use and online presence is constantly diversified as their universe continuously expands: many participate in secondary education away from their hometowns, start romantic relationships, and gain increased autonomy from their families. In a separate questionnaire on the use of social media, 82% of respondents felt that that children should only start using social media after the age of 14 years old, the main reason being that younger children are not considered to be adequately mature to establish relationships in such a public environment.

In contrast, my ethnographic qualitative data suggests that despite the relative unease of parents and teachers regarding their children’s use of mobile phones and social media, they actually encourage this use as many see it as compulsory for assuring young people a good future. This is a good example of how quantitative data was balanced by ethnographic insights in the Why We Post project.

Note: Thanks to Shriram Venkatraman for helping with statistics and graphs.

What would happen if Facebook disappears tomorrow?

RazvanNicolescu30 March 2015

Women explaining how she uses WhatsApp (Photograph by Razvan Nicolescu)

A friend explaining how she uses WhatsApp (Photograph by Razvan Nicolescu)

This quite obvious question kept coming up during my fieldwork in southeast Italy for different reasons. First, the transitory nature of Internet-based platforms and services is a big challenge for anthropologists; so we had to adapt our research methods and dissemination strategy to respond to this. Secondly, people in Grano themselves put this question in different ways as many recognized that Facebook started to be part of their everyday lives. Finally, many people were quite anxious about Facebook because they could not see any alternative to this service.

The vast majority of people I talked to agreed that the short answer to the question in the title is… ‘Nothing!’ – they would not be affected in any way if Facebook would disappear some day. This seems to also be supported by the second comparative questionnaire from the research. For example, 82% of the respondents answered the question: ‘Has using social media made you a) happier, b) less happy, c) no difference,’ by indicating variant (c).* Motivations for this option were usually related to the fact that Facebook was perceived as a nice and attractive gadget or accessory that could hardly be related to the sources of happiness or personal satisfaction with their lives. These sources were located in very precise places inside and outside the individual, unlike Facebook that few people had a clear idea of what really is and how it functions.

At the same time, only 34% of Facebook users think their use of the service is becoming less frequent, while almost 50% think their usage remained the same. The nature of our research could not identify trends, but the quantitative data confirms the key finding that even if most people in Grano do not see social media as too important and revealing, they nevertheless use it increasingly more. But the intensity of the usage is not limited to more frequent use or interaction on one single platform, such as Facebook, but mainly to continuously finding alternative platforms on the horizontal: such as WhatsApp, Instagram, or Twitter for example.

As I will detail in a future post, these platforms function so that each sustains or complements the use of the others so that there is actually no overlapping between platforms. And in particular, Facebook acts as a common kind of reference for all other social media. In this context, the ethnographic material suggests that not Facebook itself, but the kind of new public visibility that this service introduced is destined to not disappear. While Facebook could be replaced, outclassed, or rebranded it is what people have discovered about themselves by using Facebook that will stay there a little longer.

And this is why nobody in Grano would really mind if Facebook would disappear one day: they had already gained a new technology. This is established by the totality of social media people use and not by any one platform in particular.

P.S. – Facebook, as indeed all Internet giants, are already aware of this; and the way they fight their own ‘fear of disappearance’ is by continually transforming themselves and inventing new horizontal markets. This is simple marketing but what economic reality proves is that even these basic methods are extremely volatile in the Internet market. It is relatively easier to transform and invent in the domain of communications than when you are stuck in an Internet-based version of a conventional business, for example, and at least another 9 anthropologists who studied social media around the world also know why.

* This data is preliminary. Accurate data based on the quantitative questionnaires will be provided in June 2015.

What does poverty look like on social media?

RazvanNicolescu2 August 2014

Teenager from a low income family using Facebook (Photograph by Razvan Nicolescu)

Teenager from a low income family using Facebook (Photograph by Razvan Nicolescu)

This blog post is part of a much larger theme of the impact of social media on low income populations. This is most debated among social media theorists and activists and is also one of the research objectives of the Global Social Media Impact Study. I will give just a few insights on this issue from the Italian fieldsite.

First, we should keep in mind that low income is not necessarily related to poverty in Grano.  I will briefly explain why. Indeed, the unemployment figures for the local population seem to be close to recent ones for the southern Italy: that is unemployment of almost 22%, with unemployment among youth at 61%. However, relatively much less people believe they are poor. This is related to a rewarding combination of the following mechanisms: closer kin relations, which also imply efficient redistribution of material goods and possessions within the nuclear family; alternative sources of income, such as from subsistence agriculture; and the possibility to dramatically reduce the costs of living with no direct impact on social status. I will not detail these here, but I will give a typical example: let’s take a family formed of a middle-aged couple with two children where only one adult is employed on a part-time basis. The family could either own their house or live in the same house with some of their own parents; the grandmother is cooking for the entire family and at least one other parent or sibling can contribute fresh vegetables from their campagna (a small house and agricultural lot outside the city) or produce their own olive oil for the entire year. The costs for education and healthcare is minimal and the family can afford to send their children on a weekly basis to private courses of English Language or football. Such a family would normally not consider themselves poor and will always point to other people who have a lower standard of life than their own.

In this post I will refer to people from this latter category, who normally agree they have outstanding economic difficulties. It is this group of people for whom at least one of the first two mechanisms described above does not exist or does not function for different reasons. Regarding the use of social media, the first thing that blatantly differentiates them from other people in the town is related to the cost of technology. Most people living in difficult economic conditions simply cannot afford to pay for an Internet connection (which is at least 20 EURO/month), a cheap second-hand laptop (around 60-80 EURO), and do not have any interest in acquiring a smartphone. Indeed, just a few people in Grano use the free Internet services offered by the public library or the local employment office.

Then, it is interesting how this situation changes for the couples with children and especially when the children turn 12-13 years old. It is this period when parents start to realize they have to buy their children a smartphone and allow them to be present on Facebook as the majority of their school colleagues do. Moreover, most of the parents encourage their children to use social media as they see this as an imperative alignment with their peers. It is then when one of the parents – usually the mother – might also start to use Facebook.

I could not see any major difference in the use of social media among teenagers coming from different economic backgrounds. However, for parents who normally have a much more limited set of peers, social classes seem to draw daunting barriers in the online environment. In this context, for the families living in difficult economic conditions adults’ online presence never takes-off and is definitely much more restricted than for better-off people in the same age group.

It is interesting that young adults (e.g. early 20-year olds) coming from impoverished backgrounds continue to use social media in a way that aims to level off the social differences within their peers. At the same time, this offers their younger siblings and families more convincing grounds to cover up these differences when it is their turn. In this context, what does poverty on social media look like? The short answer is that poverty is portrayed in most cases as a more or less distant and ‘third-party’ issue in which the implication of the self is vaguely hinted at: poverty in different parts of the world, poverty in Italy, poverty as driven by politicians or egotistic economic systems. It is interesting to think why most of these postings and comments do not belong to people who are actually under difficult economic conditions.

It is also interesting to think about the striking absence of any reference to, or display of, one’s own poverty in the online environment. In particular, among teenagers and young people to reveal in any way how poor they actually are is perceived, among other things, as seriously affecting their prospects to venture up the social scale and out of poverty.

Note on the above photo: Giorgia is a 16 years old girl who lives with her parents and her five brothers in a modest council house in the center of Grano. Nobody in her family has a stable job and they depend on weekly help from the church. She is friends on Facebook with both her parents and her three older brothers. None of them ever suggested on Facebook they were poor; their close friends just know that and Giorgia and her family see no reason why they would bring this up online.

The ‘social’ bit of ‘social media’

RazvanNicolescu20 June 2013

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Photo: Razvan Nicolescu

This post is about the meaning of the term ‘social’ when it is part of the most popular phrase ‘social media’. The huge and diverse literature on ‘social media’ points out, in different ways, that this term signifies the kind of medium, created by usually new technologies and devices, that facilitates various types of social interactions. These interactions could be peer-to-peer or not, real-time or not, with different degrees of interactivity, as well as they could be very far from the initial intentions of the designers and producers of the particular communication technology. Nevertheless, the term ‘social media’ seems to provide an acceptable and intuitive description to this wide range of usages and practices.

The directive and levelling use of the term is perhaps most evident in the mainstream political and economic discourse. These two domains are the most active promoters of the phrase ‘social media,’ especially in relation to the assumed efficacy of this medium to drive the different ambitions on their particular agendas. I think that the most influential discourses and strong pressures that come from this part of the world economy represent the source of essential ambiguities of the term ‘social media.’ One such ambiguity is related to the sheer lack of understanding of, or interest in, what people actually do when they use some ‘social media.’

If specific new media is inherently social, this does not mean that the mainstream discourse or quantitative research would tell too much about the kind of sociality it involves. Therefore, how useful is it to say we are interested in social media? Is there any major media left that is not ‘social’ yet to a certain extent? Any research into the everyday use of ‘social media’ that is not targetting specific groups which enthusiastically embrace new technology, such as Western teenagers, affluent middle-class, or particular professional groups, show that ‘social media’ could be equally loved, ignored or hated. Then, there is no single way to love, ignore or hate, but rather an immense variety of expressions and motivations for these emotions.

The issue then seems to be to give a meaning to the ‘social’ bit of the term ‘social media.’ Does it account for so many things at once that it became theoretically ambiguous; or by contrary, does its polysemy assures a broader reach to our theoretical reasoning? I think we could respond to these kinds of questions if we try to understand what people actually do while everybody else tells them, and us, they are on social network. We will look at the everyday use and non-use of social networking sites and communication technologies in this respect: we will try to understand people in order to then understand the society they are living in.