Age Differences in On-Line Communication: How College Students and Adults Compare in their Perceptions of Offensive Facebook Posts

 

With the most recent US Presidential election, civility in online communication has resurfaced as a social issue. A survey of 409 college students and 190 faculty / staff at a liberal arts college in northeastern Pennsylvania used open-ended questions to identify the types of communicative posts people of different ages have seen and considered offensive on Facebook. Content analysis identified twenty unique themes of online inappropriateness, many of which are similar across age groups but do not appear in previous research. Common top themes include racist comments, sex / nudity, political references, and offending visuals. Age differences emerge in the rankings of these four themes and in the identified fifth theme, which is “other social issues” among college students and foul language for adults. Findings also indicate that students were statistically more likely than adults to consider posts involving traditional social issues (racism, sexism, LGBT issues, and alcohol / drugs) or aggression to be offensive; and, adults were more likely to consider foul language or the discussion of politics or religion to be offensive. Symbolic interaction theory is used to link perceptions of offensive posts to judgments of others, and suggestions for further research are discussed.