Australia has some of the highest social media usage in the world, with the use of social media increasing significantly with age among young Australians.  

It is estimated that 88% of 12-13 year olds have used a social networking site, with this increasing to 97% for 14-15 year olds and 99% for 16-17 year olds. For 12-17year olds, Facebook is the most commonly used social network (ACMA, 2013). 

A considerable number of primary school-aged children also use social networking sites. 78% of 8-9 year olds and 92% of 10-11 year olds have used a social network. The most commonly used social network among these children is YouTube (ACMA, 2013). 

Development of Social Interaction Online

Due to its rapidly changing nature, official research and statistics cannot always keep pace with activity occurring on social media.  

The popularity of social media within Australia, particularly amongst children and adolescents, has seen significant increases in access and use of social media by younger children.  

Children’s social networks, home life, and school environment will all influence when and how young people are exposed to social media.

Relevant Reading

Early Childhood: generally from ages 4-8

Entertainment is the primary reason for Internet use among this age group. Consequently, Internet users of this age typically engage in online gaming more than any other age group. Initially young people favour single player games but may shift to multi-player games where they can communicate with others online. Multi-player games become more popular as younger children begin to explore interacting with others in an online environment. Popular interactive sites for this age group may include Moshi Monsters, Disney, Club Penguin and Minecraft. Young people also begin to understand the value of using the Internet to find information about their interests, hobbies, and school assignments and so may begin to explore social media sites such as YouTube, Wikipedia, Yahookids, askkids etc. However, it is important to recognise that the majority of children this age may not understand how to appropriately process the information they collect and as a result they need to be closely monitored in an online environment.  Filters are often used by parents of children in this age group to minimise online risks. 

Middle Childhood: generally from ages 8-11

Studies from 2013 indicate that YouTube was the most popular social networking site amongst the 8 to 11 aged group, despite the service being intended for users aged 13 years and older. 53% of 8-9 year olds and 69% of 10 to11 year olds report using YouTube within the preceding four weeks (ACMA, 2013). Other social networking and gaming sites used by this age group include Moshi Monsters, Club Penguin, Habbo Hotel, Minecraft, Terraria, Instagram and Facebook (ACMA, 2013). From about the age of 10 years social interactions become increasingly important. Although 10-11 year olds continue to play online games as often as earlier age groups, they are more likely to play a multi-player game, often with open chat functions. In addition to using chat in multi-player games, some children at this age start exploring more chat specific programs, such as Skype, which are more commonly used by teenagers. 

Boys and Girls 

Boys and girls appear to use the Internet differently. An Australian study found 11% of girls compared to 18% of boys ages 10 to11 years indicated they had not used social networking services within the preceding four weeks prior to the data collection (ACMA, 2013). In addition, boys at age 10 to 11 years start to engage in online games involving violence and strategy. The proportion of girls engaging in multi-player games also increases at this age. Girls, however, tend to spend more time communicating with friends and are more likely than boys to organise offline meetings through the use of chat functions within multi-player games. Girls are also more likely than boys to send private messages and post status updates (ACMA, 2013). 

For more detailed information about the Social Networking Services used by 8-11 year olds click here to access the ACMA Report: Like, Post, Share: Young Australians’ experience of social media, Qualitative research report. 

Early adolescence: generally from ages 11-13 

67% of young people aged 12-13 years visited social media sites on a frequent basis (ACMA, 2013). Popular social networking sites visited on a regular basis include YouTube, Instagram, Twitter and Habbo Hotel. Children aged 12-13 years of age also like to post comments on people’s posts and photos (71%), send private messages (68%), post status updates (63%) and post public messages (63%) (ACMA, 2013). This age group typically engage in all areas of online activity from social networking sites to uploading and downloading videos/photos from their mobile phones. Social networking sites (such as Facebook, Instagram and Twitter) usually have a large increase in users aged 11 to 13 years. The main reason for children’s use of social networking sites at age 11 to 13 years is to keep their friends updated on what they are doing and where they are going. 

Internet users in this age group have not yet developed the thinking skills to appropriately manage their time and behaviours online. This may result in frustration and poor concentration or decision-making whilst online. 

Boys and Girls

Boys aged 11 to 13 years continue to play multi-player games but are also starting to engage in online chat programs. Girls tend to choose to chat with friends rather than play online games. Both genders seem equally interested in puzzle and strategy type games. Role play games in virtual worlds are appealing to young people as they being to explore their identity. These games allow young people to create an avatar or online identity through which they can interact with other online users. 

Click here to access the ACMA Report: Like, Post, Share: Young Australians’ experience of social media, Qualitative research report for statistics on Social Networking Services usage by 12-17 Year Olds.

Middle adolescence: generally from ages 13-15 

Teenagers of this age are actively exploring self-expression while also increasing their social interactions. 85% of young people aged 14-15 years visit social media sites on a frequent basis (ACMA, 2013). Facebook was the most popular social networking service for young people aged 12-15 years of age, with 72% of 12-13 year old and 87% of 14-15 year old respondents reporting they use the site (ACMA, 2013). Other social networking services that were regularly used include Youtube, Skype, Windows Live Messenger and Twitter (ACMA, 2013).  Instagram and Snapchat have also gained popularity with this age group. 

Users in this age category are exposed to more aspects of social networking sites as they engage more in posting comments, uploading pictures or videos, sending messages, tagging, and interacting with more people both known and unknown on their social networking sites. Transitioning through adolescence is a time for discovering their self-identity and wanting to adhere more to peer group values than parental values. Young people are more likely at this age to engage in risky online behaviour than 12-13 and 16-17 year olds. Involvement in social networking for this age group is key to staying socially connected with their peers. As a result young people report they are willing to be a part of social networking sites, despite the potential negative consequences. Young people are now “uploaders”, or content creators, rather than only downloaders of online content. This includes sharing information and pictures on social networking sties, keeping a blog, creating a personal website that may include videos/photos, and any other information of their choosing. 

This content may sometimes be inappropriate. A 2013 online survey with 1416 young people found that almost 40% of 13-15 year olds had sent a ‘sexual picture of themselves’ to someone using the Internet or mobile phones. Receiving ‘sexual pictures’ was even more common, with a prevalence rate of 62% for 13-15 year olds (Lee, Croft, McGovern & Milivojevic, 2013). 

Click here to access the ACMA Report: Like, Post, Share: Young Australians’ experience of social media, Qualitative research report for more detailed statistics on Social Networking Services usage by 12-17 Year Olds.

Late Adolescence (16 to 18 year olds)

16-18 year olds are typically extremely confident online and the Internet is an integrated part of their everyday life. This age group is more self-assured and have more specific interests which may influence their online activity. These adolescents participate in activities on social networking sites that include posting comments on someone else’s post or wall and sending private messages (89%), updating their status (85%), posting public messages (83%), posting photos or videos (79%) and tagging (78%) (ACMA, 2013). They tend to visit websites to express their opinions, download music, search for videos, and download files using websites or P2P networks, more often than when they were younger. 

Older teens are more likely to use the Internet as a place to obtain information they do not feel comfortable asking others about. Information on health topics are also sought more by these users. A small percentage of this age group search for websites with negative health content such as self-harm, pro-anorexia nervosa, and drugs.  However, the vast majority conduct positive health information searches. An increasing interest in content classed as ‘adult’ emerges for some users. These searches include topics such as pornography and violence that are searched more frequently by boys. 

Increasing access to technology with more limited parent supervision, and an increasing interest in romantic relationships, can result in the sharing of sexually suggestive or explicit material. An Australian survey with over 2000 students in Years 10, 11 and 12 reported that over 50% of the students had received a sexually explicit message, and 25% had sent a sexually explicit photo of themselves to someone else (Mitchell et al. 2014).  

Girls appear to be more likely to experience pressure from others to share sexual images of themselves, and may believe that doing so is a normal and expected behaviour. Peer groups tend to be particularly influential in affecting whether young people engage in sexting (Van Ouytsel et al. 2014).  

Many negative consequences can result from personal images being sent, particularly if the images/videos are shared with unintended recipients. In Australia, the law bans sexting for anyone under 18. A young person can be charged with producing and/or distributing child pornography if they are under 18, even if the photo/video was of themselves. 

References/Further reading

  • Click here to access the ACMA Report: Like, Post, Share: Young Australians’ experience of social media, Qualitative research report for statistics on Social Networking Services usage by 12-17 Year Olds, (Report).
  • Anne Mitchell, Kent Patrick, Wendy Heywood, Pamela Blackman and Marian Pitts (2014) The National Survey of Australian Secondary Students and Sexual Health by the Australian Research Centre in Sex, Health and Society
  • Joris Van Ouytsel, Michel Walrave & Ellen Van Gool (2014) Sexting: Between Thrill and Fear—How Schools Can Respond, The Clearing House: A Journal of Educational Strategies, Issues and Ideas, 87:5, 204-212.\
  • Lee, M., Crofts, T., Salter, M., Milivojevic, S., McGovern, A. (2013). 'Let's Get Sexting': Risk, Power, Sex and Criminalisation in the Moral Domain. International Journal for Crime, Justice and Social Democracy, 2(1), 35-49.