Gender, Age, Socioeconomic, and Cultural Differences in Social Networking Site Usage

Anime high school girls in London-esque BG

Online social networks has become an interesting platform for research, and hundreds if not thousands of studies around the world are investigating how we interact with others online. This article looks into recent studies that analyzed data regarding differences in age, culture, gender, and socioeconomic status.

Gender Differences

Researchers from the Santa Fe Institute used a multiplayer game “Pardus” to analyze social networks. Online video games have become increasingly seen as a gold mine of data on social interactions in recent years, and, as it turns out, many of the same gender differences seen in the real world were observed in the social networks in Pardus.

While taking into account the minimal probability of gender-swapping (an estimated 15 percent, from among the Pardus population of 300,000 players), Thurner and Szell were able to able to assess the networking behaviors of male and female players. [. . .]Females have more communication partners, engage in economic activities to a greater degree, attract positive behavior, organize in clusters, reciprocate friendships, take fewer risks than men, and show a preference for stability in local networks.

Males try to talk most often with those who talk with many, reciprocate friendships with other males much less frequently, and respond quite quickly to female friendship initiatives.

The findings of males being less likely to talk to other males may be affected by the factor of competitiveness – after all, it is a game that they were playing. A study from 2012 found that 9 to 13 year old males actually have their relationships strengthened by using social networking sites, in which there is no inherent competitive interaction.Boys who used such sites showed greater feelings of belonging to their friendship group than their counterparts who who did not use them.

And as research continuously shows, a large circle of friends is important for both men and women. That doesn’t mean that the more friends you have the better off you are, but it sure helps to have several friends rather than just a few.

Age Differences

City University’s Centre for HCI Design, in London, England, published a study in 2008 looking at MySpace users 60 years old or more, and compared them to users between 13 and 19 years old.

Teenagers tended to have a much larger network of friends, and the age range of their friends tended to be only two years younger or older. Older networkers had a much more wide age range. This makes sense when you think… who is a 13 year old supposed to know? School friends, of course.

Teenagers also tended to use more media (e.g., videos and music), as well as more self-references. And when they described themselves, the teenagers would tend to be more negative.

Another study looked at Generation X (i.e., middle aged people) and found that they are as likely to meet their friends, family, and colleagues online as they are to meet them offline. Unfortunately, the study didn’t compare results among age groups, so this is not a particularly informative study. Put I would speculate that older people are more likely to meet people offline and younger people are more likely to meet people online. I suppose it just depends on your definition of young and old. The following graph shows the age distribution of social network site users.

social-network-avg-age-distr-580px

Socioeconomic Differences

Shigehiro Oishi of the University of Virginia and Selin Kesebir of the London Business School collaborated on research that was published last year regarding social networking strategies. They suggest that in times of economic instability, having more friends might be costly, in terms of not just monetary resources but also time (e.g., if you need to listen to someone’s complaints).

With this in mind, Oishi and Kesebir predicted that a broad, shallow networking strategy would be optimal for people living in a residentially mobile, economically favorable context. A narrow, deep networking strategy, on the other hand, would be optimal if people tend to stay in one place and economic conditions aren’t as favorable.

In the first study, they created a model that simulated the benefits individuals receive from their social network under various socioeconomic conditions. The researchers were able to simulate people who have different numbers of friends at different levels of friendship and they were also able to account for the investment required by each type of friendship.

As they predicted, they found that having a small social network with deep ties to friends is advantageous when friends are not likely to move away and the economy is unstable. Regardless of economic conditions, having a broad social network with weak ties to friends is advantageous when friends are likely to move away.

Then they conducted an interesting second study that was to see whether or not the same results could be found in the real world. They had participants rate three types of friends: very close, close, and distant; and they were to allocate 60 points among those three types to indicate how much time, energy and money they would spend on them. They also assessed participants’ life satisfaction, and positive/negative emotional experiences, as well as census data about residential mobility and family income in each zip code.

The findings from the second study echoed those of the first study. In zip codes that were residentially stable and relatively low income, participants who had a narrow, deep friendship strategy reported greater well-being than those who had a broad, shallow friendship strategy. Notably, the broad, shallow strategy was associated with subjective well-being in all three of the other economic conditions (low income-unstable, high income-stable, high income-unstable).

Oishi and Kesebir argue that these two studies provide clear evidence for the role of socioeconomic factors — such as residential mobility and economic security — in determining the most adaptive networking strategy.

“As residential mobility decreases and economic recession deepens in the United States, the optimal social-networking strategy might shift from the broad but shallow to the narrow but deep, even in a nation known best for the strength of weak ties,” the researchers conclude.

It could be argued that we don’t know if the results would be the same with a different country; but luckily, there is a study that specifically compares American social networking with that of another country.

Cultural Differences

A recent study from Michigan State University compared social networking websites among American and Chinese students. Keep in mind that the U.S. is an individualistic, agentic society, whereas China is a collectivistic, communist society. Their cultures are reflected in the way they behave on social networking sites.

U.S. citizens spend more time on the networking sites, consider them to be more important and have more “friends” on the sites, the research found. The most popular social networking site in the United States is Facebook; in China it’s Ozone.

Quick note: I appreciate how they write “friends” in quotation marks. “Friends” indeed.

Linda Jackson, MSU professor of psychology, said Chinese citizens tend to be more interested in real-world relationships than online friendships and less inclined toward the self-promotion that’s popular on sites such as Facebook and Twitter.

“In the United States, it’s all about promoting yourself and taking credit for positive outcomes and denying blame for negative outcomes,” Jackson said. “In China, it’s the opposite. If something bad happens, you take the blame and talk about how you can improve. If something good happens, the credit is shared for the good of the group.”

Jackson and Jin-Liang Wang, a researcher at China’s Southwest University, surveyed more than 400 college-aged residents from each country on their use of social network sites. [. . .] The study found that U.S. participants spent nearly twice as long on social networking sites (nearly 52 minutes a day) compared with Chinese participants (about 28 minutes a day). Further, nearly a fifth (19 percent) of Chinese participants said they almost never use social networking sites, compared to just 4 percent in the United States.

Jackson said the Chinese parenting style likely plays a role in the disparity. Chinese parents emphasize effort as a means to achievement and success, she said, and using social networking sites is not consistent with this focus as it takes away from schoolwork. “Thus, Chinese parents may discourage or even forbid their children from using social networking sites,” Jackson said.

Chinese children also are less likely than U.S. children to have multiple computers in the home. Because of the communal nature of Chinese culture, many homes have just one computer, located in a shared space. But Jackson doesn’t see it as an issue with access. “If Chinese students really wanted to go online more, they easily could, whether it’s at home or at school. It’s more of a motivation factor,” she said.

“It becomes a question of what’s important in life. In China, it’s more important to sit down for a family dinner or concentrate on your homework or help your parents clean the house.”

Ultimately, Jackson said she’s concerned about the potential negative effects of spending an increasing amount of time online. “Because we are essentially social creatures, I cannot see good coming out of social isolation and practices that encourage aloneness and solitary activities,” she said. “And a lot of technology does this.”

Not that I want to defend Facebook – because a) I basically agree with her, and b) I hate Facebook – but the whole point of social networking is that you’re not alone. So I don’t really accept her explanation; but it’s the research itself that counts.

The Bottom Line

This is how the research looks today, but I imagine it will be totally different even a decade from now – especially when it comes to age differences. New technology, new sites – perhaps even a Facebook killer – and new consumers will potentially change everything we know about social networking. So take these studies with a grain of salt, but recognize that they largely reflect the cultures and subcultures of today, and that online activity seems mostly to be determined by the offline culture. Now you can see how marketers make such assumptions about people by looking at their online activity.

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