Talking into the Unknown

Young people's chat room usage and behavior - Ipsos-Reid's survey, The Face of the Web: Youth

Talking into the Unknown

When you think about the different words for verbal expression, you realize that each of them has different connotations. For example, "chat" indicates a more casual tone than "talk" or "speak." It brings to mind coffeehouses, slouching back, and abandoning formal habits of thought conveyance. Whatever comes up, comes up, and a looser structure of dialogue results. These days, chat has a new forum: the Internet. This article discusses findings on young people's chat room usage and behavior, derived from Ipsos-Reid's recently completed The Face of the Web: Youth.

Chat rooms are picking up in popularity among global youth, taking a place alongside the telephone as a means of expression and freedom. Nearly three-quarters of the youth we surveyed in The Face of the Web: Youth had tried chat rooms. Chat rooms are especially popular in urban Brazil, Sweden, and urban China, where over eight-in-ten have used them. In terms of gender, affinity for chat rooms is highest among young girls (77% trial) and lowest among young women (68% trial), with boys (72%) and young men (71%) in the middle. Our age splits were 12-17 and 18-24.

The electronic equivalent of the coffeehouse, the chat room encourages the same kind of informality and freedom from constraints. The differences are that more people can fit into a chat room than around a coffee table, and you don't really know who they are. Chat room participants can project their personalities, but whether these are the same versions as in "real-life" or alter-egos that find their ultimate expression in anonymous ether is never certain.

Is there anything wrong with this? Not necessarily, but sometimes. When you consider that chat rooms attract more young people than older ones, the possible hazards become clear. Young people are more vulnerable, if for no other reason that they've seen less of life and come across fewer people. Their "radar screens" for danger are generally less fully developed than are adults', and their urge for self-definition is at an apex. That means that a lot of them spill personal details in chat rooms, details that can provoke one of two things:

(1) They can prompt other users to open up as well, and thereby provide a safe haven for expression. In chat rooms, appearance and image is less of a factor than it is in real life, and this can be really freeing for self-conscious youngsters. Fears and concerns that might otherwise never be revealed can find a voice in chat rooms, and this, for the most part, is a positive thing.

(2) They can attract the attention of unsavory characters who prey on the trust of young people. Adult pedophiles can easily pose as adolescents and develop relationships with young people on that false basis. The implications of this are frightening enough when they are limited solely to the world of the Web. After all, any betrayal or fraud feels horrible, regardless of whether it is physical or emotional. But when imposters convince their unwitting victims to carry the relationship into real life (i.e., through an actual, in-person meeting), the results can be disastrous.

One-in-five of our surveyed population had gone on to meet someone (in-person) they had met online. This extension of the online relationship was more common among the older segment (25%) than among the younger one (14%). Doubtlessly, many of these in-person meetings were positive, but some of them probably turned out to be less enjoyable.

The fear of imposters luring children into dangerous territory (mental or otherwise) is nothing new. After all, the telephone has allowed much the same thing to happen over the past century. The difference is that crank calls are more of an abrupt intrusion into the home environment, and as a result, their motives are more easily detected by the listener. Chat rooms, by contrast, allow for the gradual development of relationships, setting off fewer immediate warning signs as a consequence. Trust takes a while to build, even within young people, and the chat room provides the time for this that the telephone doesn't.

Females have traditionally been more prone to being victims of unwanted advances than males have been, and findings from our global The Face of the Web: Youth show that this trend is continuing in chat rooms. Surveyed girls and young women were more than twice as likely as boys and young men were to have had negative experiences using chat rooms (including, but not limited, to sexual advances). One-in-five surveyed females aged 12-17 and fully one-quarter of females aged 18-24 reported feeling frightened or uneasy in chat rooms. In addition, roughly two-thirds of all the surveyed females said that they had received comments about their body or about sex.

These events do not normally discourage young people from continuing to use the Internet, but women and girls who have had bad experiences are twice as likely as men and boys are to report decreased use of chat rooms (34% compared to 15%).

Marketing Implications

(1) Quite simply, youth are the vanguard of the Internet revolution, and marketers and communicators should be doing everything that they can to make them feel safe and entertained on the Web. The fact that so many young people reported feeling frightened or uneasy in chat rooms is evidence that this is one area of Web culture that needs improvement.

(2) While youth are generally doing more communicating than purchasing on the Web (due in part to lower or non-existent discretionary incomes), they are the future big online purchasers. The more comfortable they feel in Web chat rooms, the more likely they are to explore its other features, including banner ads. If they come to see communication in general as suspect as a result of bad chat room experiences, they will be less likely to be receptive to other forms of messaging.

(3) Chat rooms (again, like coffeehouses), are places to share elements of youth culture, including materialistic ones. New, hot trends are often discussed in chat rooms. When you think about how many young people are using chat rooms, you come to realize that chat rooms are the ultimate word-of-mouth vehicle for manufacturers of all types of products and services. Just one more reason to make chat rooms a comfortable place to hang out.

In conclusion, chat room service providers might do well to think of the bricks-and-mortar coffeehouses that are their offline equivalents when thinking about atmosphere. Well-maintained and inviting, coffeehouses prompt the free (but safe) flow of ideas and relationships. When their atmosphere isn't as well cultivated, they become empty and lose customers. There is every reason to believe that the same thing will happen with chat rooms as they evolve: some of them will become widely used meeting-houses, and some will have the ether as their only friends.

Kiley Turner Senior Editor, Ipsos-Reid

Ipsos-Reid is a leading North American market and public opinion research firm with global capabilities in 80 countries and offices across the continent. This year, Ipsos-Reid conducted a study among thousands of young people aged 12 to 24 in 17 countries around the world: The Face of the Web: Youth. For more information about The Face of the Web, please call:

Ed Morawski, Ipsos-Reid, New York (212-265-3200) or e-mail info@ipsos-reid.com.

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