A new national survey finds the use of social-networking sites is growing, and contrary to some assumptions, people who use online social platforms, such as Facebook, MySpace and Twitter, have higher measures of social well-being.
The survey of 2,225 American adults last fall by the Pew Research Center's Internet & AmericanLife Project found that the proportion of people using at least one social networking site has grown to 47% from 26% in 2008. As a result, the average age of adult users has increased from 33 to 38. More than half are now over 35 and 56% are women.
Facebook, of course, is the dominant social property, with 92% of those surveyed using it, compared to 29% on MySpace, 18% on LinkedIn, and 13% on Twitter. Facebook users were also found to be more trusting than other Internet users; they have more close relationships and get more social support than the average American.
They were also more politically engaged; a Facebook user who visited the site multiple times per day was two-and-a-half times more likely than other Internet users to attend a political rally or meeting, 57% more likely to persuade someone on their vote, and 43% more likely to have said they would vote.
In the Pew sample, the average Facebook member had 229 friends on the site, with people from high school making up the largest share at 22%, followed by extended family (12%) and coworkers (10%), college friends (9%), and immediate family (8%). Facebook has also served as a way for people to revive dormant relationships.
What are people doing on the site?
The study found that 15% on an average day update their Facebook status, 22% comment on someone else's post or status, 20% comment on photos, 26% "Like" another user's content, and 10% send another user a private message.
Across all social networks, people are increasingly using them to keep up with close social ties. So 40% of users have "friended" their closest confidantes on social sites, up from 29% in 2008.
Despite speculation that social networks may hurt users' relationships or leave them isolated, "we found the exact opposite. People who use sites like Facebook actually have more close relationships and are more likely to be involved in civic and political activities," said Pew study author Keith Hampton, assistant professor at the University of Pennsylvania's Annenberg School of Communication, in announcing the findings.
That doesn't mean the social-networking population is monolithic. MySpace users, for instance, tend to be younger, with an average age of 32, and are more likely to be open to opposing points of view. MySpace and Twitter users are the most racially diverse mainstream social platforms.
When it comes to LinkedIn, nearly twice as many men (63%) as women (37%) use the professional networking site. LinkedIn members also tend to be well-educated, with most having at least one university degree. By contrast, MySpace users generally have fewer years of formal education than people on other social networks.
The Pew research come on the heels of news that Facebook's growth has slowed recently. In the U.S., it lost 6 million users in May -- the first time the number of users has dropped here in the past year, according to Inside Facebook. The site noted that Facebook typically hits saturation when it reaches about 50% of a country's population, which is where it is in the U.S.