Anyone reading newspapers or watching the TV news in the UK over the last couple of months could be forgiven for thinking that, along with computer games, social networks posed a bigger threat to personal security than anything this side of a full on recession. Headlines have concentrated on the supposed dangers involved in having a profile on Facebook, Bebo, or any of the other major networks popular here.
The research found that people who actually used social networks, as opposed to those who simply read the scare stories in the mainstream media, were more concerned with issues relating to privacy, such as personal details being used to target advertising (Facebook’s Beacon fiasco, for example), or being passed to 3rd parties, than with safety, such as issues surrounding identity theft: of the 1,431 UK internet users over the aged of 16 questioned who used social networking sites, 37% had limited profiles on their social networking pages, suggesting they were well aware of the issues at stake.
So why this disconnect between the stories and the survey? Well, apart from the fact that much of the British press never let a couple of facts get in the way of a good story, there’s also the issue of education. As the report points out, for many parents of young children, social networking is simply an utterly alien concept. And in these days of persistent fear, the idea that one’s child might be ‘talking’ to a stranger is, understandably, a scary one.
However, whilst it seems that it is up to all of us who work in the world of digital communication to do as much as we can to help to educate the general population and mainstream media, it seems like as soon as we have, they’re likely to have something else to worry about. Whilst sites such as Bebo and Facebook are now pre-empting security & privacy concerns (Bebo warns users under the age of 21 if they try to make their profiles searchable), it seems likely that the next giant leap in terms of the UK social networking market is likely to be the leap onto mobile, and it’s much harder to keep track of what a child is accessing on their mobile than on their PC.
Despite having reached, and passed, 100% in terms of mobile handset penetration (according to Ofcom, there are 115 connections for every 110 people), it seems obvious that the mobile internet will soon reach a tipping point. However, with much of that penetration having been achieved with pre-pay models, which tend to discourage internet use, that point certainly hasn’t been reached yet.
But when you consider the demographics of the heaviest users of social networks (16-24) with those who use their mobiles the most (much the same), it does seem possible, as Mintel suggests, that the ability to access & use social networks 24/7 could be the ‘killer app’ in terms of driving uptake of mobile internet, especially in conjunction with the rise of the iPhone, partnerships between social networks & mobile operators, and the increasing availability of flat-rate web access in monthly contracts.
But again, it’s probably best not to get too carried away with the fear of predators lurking on every corner, just waiting for ‘the kids’ to start accessing Bebo from their Nokia. Because as a secondary piece of research commissioned by Mintel (of 860 mobile phone users aged between 11 & 18) found, whilst this group appear less concerned with privacy than the general population, it was probably due to the fact that this group is already aware of the issues: only a quarter said that they put lots of personal information on a profile.
As The Who sang way back in 1965, “The kids are alright.”
For this report, Mintel commissioned exclusive consumer research from GMI (Global Market Insite) among an Internet-representative sample of 2,000 adults aged 16+ in Great Britain. The survey was self-complete and conducted entirely online. It was felt that an Internet sample was the most appropriate to reach an audience most familiar with online social networking.
In addition, because of the popularity of online social networking among the younger generation, Mintel also commissioned exclusive consumer research from Q-Research among 860 nationally representative 11-18-year-olds. The survey was conducted via mobile phone, utilising the Wireless Application Protocol (WAP). Conducting a survey by mobile phone among this age group allowed Mintel to reach a key target audience who were able to respond almost immediately and in total privacy.
Ciarán Norris is the SEO & Social Media Director at British digital marketing agency Altogether Digital. Altogether work with Mintel as consultants on SEO & Social Media.
Opinions expressed in the article are those of the guest author and not necessarily Search Engine Land.