Commentary

Brits Use Social Media More, But Share Less

Union Jack/whispers

Paralleling the United States, the number of adults in the United Kingdom who use social networks has expanded rapidly in the last few years -- but they are also demonstrating more caution in what they choose to share online, according to the new UK Adult Media Literacy report from Ofcom, which conducted 1,824 in-home interviews with U.K. adults. Does this echo or foreshadow similar changes in the U.S.?

There's no question that social networks are very popular in the U.K. -- particularly Facebook. The total proportion of U.K. adults on the Internet who have a social network profile doubled from 22% in 2007 to 44% in 2009, and 35% check into a social network site at least once a week; unsurprisingly, the proportion varied by age, with 69% of the 16-24 set, 54% for 25-34, 28% for 35-44, 17% for 45-54, 12% for 55-64, and 4% of 65+ checking in once a week. Ofcom found that women were more likely than men to have a social network profile (48% to 40%).

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Among Internet adults with social network profiles, 41% said they check in every day, up from 30% in 2007. Meanwhile the proportion of the social network subset with a profile on Facebook increased from 62% in 2007 to 90% in 2009, making it far and away the dominant social network (by comparison, MySpace penetration among the same group decreased from 46% in 2007 to 18% in 2009).

Now, the survey has some obvious shortcomings: just 1% of U.K. adults who use the Internet said they look at "adult-only Web sites," and in statistical parlance this is a "big fat lie" (a survey by Norton in February 2008 found 58% of men and 18% of women look at online pornography). But presumably answers were more likely to be honest in areas where the shame factor was lower. And the stats on privacy -- if trustworthy -- suggest a definite trend towards less sharing.

The proportion of social network users who say their online profiles can be seen only by their friends increased from 48% in 2007 to 80% in 2009, and the number who use social network sites to talk to people they don't know decreased from 17% to 10% over the same period. By contrast, the percentage who said they use social networks to stay in touch with friends and family they see regularly increased from 69% to 78%. Higher proportions of young adults said they use social networks to talk to friends of friends (41% for 16-24-year-olds, versus 32% overall). Males were more likely than females to talk to friends of friends (37% to 28%) and to talk to people they don't know (13% vs. 7%). Interestingly, the number of people who said they "look at other people's pages without leaving a message" decreased from 40% of all social network users in 2007 to 35% in 2009.

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