A Pilot Evaluation of Older Adolescents' Sexual Reference Displays on Facebook

By Moreno, Megan A.; Brockman, LibN. et al. | The Journal of Sex Research, July-August 2012 | Go to article overview
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A Pilot Evaluation of Older Adolescents' Sexual Reference Displays on Facebook


Moreno, Megan A., Brockman, LibN., Wasserheit, Judith N., Christakis, Dimitri A., The Journal of Sex Research


Social networking (Web) sites (SNSs) are immensely popular among adolescents and young adults; the vast majority have Internet access, and most report daily use (Lenhart, Purcell, Smith, & Zickuhr, 2010). Over 90% of U.S. college students use the SNS Facebook (Ellison, Steinfield, & Lampe, 2007; Ross, Orr, Arseneault, Simmering, & Orr, 2009). Sexual content is part of many adolescents' SNS profiles; approximately one-fourth of older adolescents display sexual references on these publicly available profiles (Moreno, Parks, Zimmerman, Brito, & Christakis, 2009). Examples of sexual references include personally written texts describing sexual experiences, such as "Mark got laid last night," or revealing photographs of the profile owner, such as in lingerie. SNSs may represent a new venue in which adolescent sexual behavior is explored and displayed. The meaning of these displayed sexual references, possibly as an indicator of the profile owner's sexual intentions or behaviors, is not well understood.

SNSs in the Lives of Adolescents and Young Adults

When exploring the meaning of displayed sexual references on SNSs, we must first consider the functions that SNSs serve for adolescents and young adults. SNSs combine multiple tools into one Web site; thus, they may serve multiple functions in an adolescent's life. The first tool is the capacity to build an online social network via "friending." When two profile owners accept each other as online "friends," the two profiles become linked, and content is mutually accessible. These online social networks may include peers, acquaintances, family, coworkers, or even college professors. SNSs are also a venue in which users may initiate and maintain romantic relationships (Boyd, 2007; Ellison et al., 2007; Pujazon-Zazik & Park, 2010).

A second tool provided by SNSs is access to three distinct methods of communication. These include profile-to-profile messages that are sent privately, similar to e-mail. Instant messaging, or chatting, can be used if two profiles are linked as friends and both profile owners are logged onto the site at the same time. Adolescents may also display comments on their friends' profiles, thus allowing a public form of feedback from peers to be displayed on profiles.

Finally, a major developmental task in the transition between adolescent and adult lives is the development of one's identity. As adolescents navigate this developmental process, SNSs provide a technological tool and cultural venue for adolescents and emergent adults to express their identities. SNSs allow users to create a personal Web profile that may contain audio, images (e.g., downloaded images and icons, personal photographs, and video), and text (e.g., blogs and personal descriptions). Adolescents often use online tools to express their identity, as has been supported by previous studies examining adolescents' use of blogs (Mazur & Kozarian, 2010). A widely used feature of some SNSs, such as Facebook, is called "status updates," which allow a user to share a short text description of one's current location, emotion, or activity. SNSs also allow profile owners to create online photo albums and to share photographs with other profile owners. Profiles can be updated or changed at any time. Through developing and modifying a SNS profile, users choose what pieces of their identity to publicly display at a given moment.

The identity that is displayed on SNS profiles is, thus, a public online identity. SNSs present opportunities for adolescents and young adults to decide how much of their identities to reveal publicly. At the time of the data collection in this study, profiles were either publicly available to the Facebook network at large or privately available only to other friends whose profiles were linked. Facebook has undergone numerous privacy setting changes over the past few years. Currently, privacy settings include options to set pieces of the profile to public or private audiences.

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A Pilot Evaluation of Older Adolescents' Sexual Reference Displays on Facebook
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