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Facebook helps teens build up their identity

(Ex-press)

Social networking sites, such as Facebook, have become a phenomenon, with around 80 per cent of Swiss young people using them.

Research being discussed at an academic conference in Basel shows that teenagers use these sites to help shape their identities and for communication, although not in sensitive matters. However, security is still an issue.

The two-day meeting, which started on Thursday, brings together international researchers to discuss identity, communication and privacy issues arising from social networking use. It is being hosted by Basel University's Institute of Media studies.

"Social networking is one of the most important recent developments in youth culture and Facebook is right now the biggest social network on the internet," said Ulla Autenrieth, one of the organisers of the Netcultures conference.

There are more than 300 million Facebook users worldwide, and 1.1 million of them in Switzerland. That's around one seventh of the population.

Autenrieth has also been working on a research project, Images of Youth on the Internet, which is backed by the Swiss National Science Foundation. It looks at how young people express themselves visually on social networking sites.

Researchers concentrated on the 12-24 years age group – those that use social networks most, with 80 per cent having profiles. They found that the most active ages were between 15 and 19 years old.

Overall, 15 to 17 years olds were the peak group: 75 per cent of them had a profile on Facebook, for example. Other popular sites include the German student portal StudiVZ and Netlog, a Belgium-based site aimed at the European youth demographic.

Defining yourself

"Adolescence is a time when you build up your identity. You look at who you are and what defines you as a person and what kinds of friends and hobbies you have," Autenrieth told swissinfo.ch.

"You consider how you want others to see you... social networking sites are a good tool to build up a kind of identity and to communicate this to others."

This involves a lot of trial and error, the sociology expert explained. "You can put something on your page, for example we have photos of teenagers who try out new hairstyles or show off their new clothes and they get positive or negative feedback from their friends."

Younger web users do not generally have their own computers or internet access and their parents are still keeping an eye on their net use, she added.

The over 30s, while represented on Facebook and its competitors, are not as digital savvy as the younger generation, who grew up with the net.

Delicate matters

However, the Basel University research did not find that social networking had replaced normal interaction among the "Facebook generation".

The team conducted telephone interviews with around 650 teenagers and young adults to ask them about what kind of communication they used for situations like flirting, getting in touch with new people or splitting up in relationships.

"We found that communication on social networks is more for everyday than for more delicate things. It's for saying hello and keeping in touch," said Autenrieth.

"The closer a relationship is, the more people use telephone or email or make an effort to meet people face to face."

These net users were found to be well aware of security risks, such as private data being exposed. Network sites have also made a huge effort to develop protection tools including restricting access to profiles. But there is a gap in practice among teenagers.

Security gap

"All are aware but not all can handle the [security issue] in an appropriate way, there are some who are more able to use the special tools than others," said Autenrieth.

Worldwide it is mostly teens using social networking sites like Facebook but there are some differences. In the United States, MySpace is very popular and in Germany, StudiVZ and SchülerVZ. Swiss youngsters like Netlog, and switch to Facebook at around 16 years old.

Twitter, which only attracts a small following in Switzerland at the moment, is becoming more important in the overall social networking scene, said the researcher.

"People are also closing their Facebook profiles because they are getting tired with it," pointed out Autenrieth. But this won't stop its dominance. "It will even grow," she said.

Isobel Leybold-Johnson, swissinfo.ch

Not at work

A United States survey has revealed that 54% of firms asked (1,400 with at least 100 employees) had banned their employees from using sites such as Facebook, MySpace and Twitter.

Bank UBS and Credit Suisse and the Swiss Post and Federal Railways are among the Swiss companies who have also imposed a stop.

It was announced in September that the entire federal administration with the exception of the foreign ministry had barred their employees from accessing the social networking website Facebook.

A study earlier this year revealed that Facebook was the second-most visited website by federal employees.

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Facebook and co in Switzerland

StudiVZ – once sued by Facebook for having identical features - claims 15 million users across Germany, Austria and Switzerland, while Netlog says it has 54 million people registered in 25 languages. Facebook has more than 300 million users worldwide.

Roger Federer used Facebook to announce the birth of his twin daughters, while an enterprising Zurich man has developed PetSite.com, a kind of Facebook for animals and their owners.

However, not all are enthusiastic about these kind of sites. The Swiss data protection commissioner, Hanspeter Thür, has called for data protection to be taught in schools in response to the popularity of social networking sites among children.

A survey by the Swiss Association of Data Protection Commissioners, the first of its kind in Switzerland and published in January 2009 , revealed that people were worried about web privacy in Switzerland but were still lax about what they put on the net.

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