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How and Why Teenagers Use Video Chat

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Abstract

Teenagers are increasingly using video chat systems to communicate with others, however, little research has been conducted to explore how and why they use the technology. To better understand this design space, we present the results of a study of twenty teenagers and their use of video chat systems such as Skype, FaceTime, and Google Hangouts. Our results show that video chat plays an important role in helping teenagers socialize with their friends after school and on weekends where it allows them to see emotional reactions and participate in activities like shared homework sessions, show and tell, and performances over distance. Yet video chat is also used to engage in more private activities such as gossiping, flirting, and even the viewing of sexual acts. This presents an interesting design challenge of supporting teen use of video chat while mitigating privacy and parental concerns.
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How and Why Teenagers Use Video Chat
Tatiana Buhler, Carman Neustaedter, and Serena Hillman
School of Interactive Arts and Technology, Simon Fraser University
250 – 13450 102nd Avenue
Surrey, BC, Canada, V3T 0A3
[tda6, carman_neustaedter, shillman]@sfu.ca
ABSTRACT
Teenagers are increasingly using video chat systems to
communicate with others, however, little research has been
conducted to explore how and why they use the
technology. To better understand this design space, we
present the results of a study of twenty teenagers and their
use of video chat systems such as Skype, FaceTime, and
Google Hangouts. Our results show that video chat plays
an important role in helping teenagers socialize with their
friends after school and on weekends where it allows them
to see emotional reactions and participate in activities like
shared homework sessions, show and tell, and
performances over distance. Yet video chat is also used to
engage in more private activities such as gossiping, flirting,
and even the viewing of sexual acts. This presents an
interesting design challenge of supporting teen use of video
chat while mitigating privacy and parental concerns.
Author Keywords
Teenagers; video chat; video conferencing; social media
ACM Classification Keywords
H.5.3 [Information interfaces and presentation]: Group and
Organization Interfaces - Computer Supported Cooperative
Work;
INTRODUCTION
For many adolescents, connection with friends for
socialization, relationship-building, and hanging outnow
takes place online [4,22]. The social expectations and
pressures that are created by constant connectivity are also
evident amongst teens [19]. Given this, a large amount of
research has focused on how teenagers make use of a
variety of communication technologies. This includes text
messaging [8], instant messaging [9,10], and social
networking sites such as Facebook [1,4,22].
Over the last several years, we have seen the use of video
chat for communication amongst family and friends rapidly
proliferate with the availability of free video conferencing
systems like Skype, Apple FaceTime, and Google
Hangouts. This has resulted in studies exploring the ways in
which video chat is used by families with children
[2,13,16], grandparents and grandchildren [25], long
distance partners [24], etc. In 2012, a study showed that
37% of teenagers aged 12 to 17 used video chat [17];
however, we have yet to see any studies that specifically
document how and why teenagers use such systems.
Without this, we do not know how video chat supports (or
does not) the needs of this unique demographic and how
such systems could be better designed.
For this reason, we have conducted a study with twenty
teenagersbetween thirteen and eighteen years of age
who use video chat to communicate with their friends or
family at varying frequencies. Our results outline the ways
in which video chat is used by teenagers, when and why
teenagers choose to use video chat over other technologies,
and what challenges they face in using the technology. To
foreshadow, like prior studies of adult use of video chat
[2,6,13,16,24], teenagers valued being able to see their
friends, they engaged in open connections in order to share
activities longer term, and some teenagers even engaged in
sexually explicit activities over video chat. Like pre-teens’
usage of asynchronous video [12], teenagers also engaged
in ‘Show and Tellsessions and ‘Performing Acts.
Beyond this, teens also showed new and different patterns
of usage. Video calls were most often spontaneous, multi-
person calls were more frequent, and, most fundamental,
teenagers had a more localized sense of distance than
adults. That is, video chat was about ‘hanging out’ with
neighborhood friends, rather than trying to feel closer to
people across long distances (as found for adults [2,6,16]).
Overall, our results point to interesting challenges focused
on designing video chat systems to better support the needs
of teenagers while also mitigating parental concerns
First, we outline the related work on video chat and
teenagers’ use of technology for communication. Second,
we describe our interview study methodology. Third, we
outline our results. We conclude by discussing our results
and what they mean for the design of future video
communication systems for teenagers.
RELATED WORK
To ground our study, we outline the related literature on
studies of teenagers’ use of technology. Some of these
studies are several years old and, given the rapidly changing
use of technology, practices may have changed since then.
Following this, we describe studies of video chat systems.
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Text Messaging
As of 2008, 71% of American youth aged 12-17 had a
mobile phone where 85% used their mobile phones to send
text messages or ‘text’ [19]. Texting is very popular among
teenagers because it is fast and efficient, convenient, and
private [10]. That is, teenagers feel they can communicate
with friends without the eyes and ears of parents, siblings,
or classmates knowing about their activities [8,22], though
there is care to ensure texts do not always remain on one’s
phone for surreptitious browsing [20]. Texting most
commonly occurs between people who know each other,
while messages from advertising companies and strangers
were seen as intrusive and unwelcome [10]. Studies of
teenagers’ texting habits revealed that they used texting to
coordinate activities with others, initiate communication,
and simply to chat [8,10,20]; however, within this, they
experienced challenges in understanding the intent behind
messages as well as an evolving ‘texting language [8,10].
Texting was also highly valued because teenagers could
perform multiple tasks while communicating with friends
[1,8]. In addition to this, we also now see reports of
teenagers ‘sexting’ where they text sexually explicit
messages or revealing photos of themselves to others [27].
Instant Messaging
Instant messaging (IM) is another popular communication
medium amongst teenagers. Studies have shown that, as of
2007, 82% of the teenagers who used the Internet also used
an IM client to communicate with friends [19]. Teenagers’
typically used IM with their school friends (as opposed to
people they might meet online) and it allowed them
communicate at nearly all hours of the day [9,11]. IM was
used for socializing, event planning, and joint schoolwork
from home [9]. Within these activities, teenagers would
multi-task what they were doing, and also multi-task their
conversation [9]. While using IM, teenagers were
concerned about others looking over their shoulder because
they often used computers in public home locations [20].
They also expressed privacy concerns about messages
being saved on the computer and read by others and would
carefully use IM status indicators and messages to enforce
their autonomy and provide awareness of presence [9].
Social Media and Social Networking Sites
Teenagers also make heavy use of social networking sites
such as Facebook. Again, they are primarily used by teens
to connect with friends whom they already know as
opposed to strangers [1,4,22]. Social networking sites were
found to be used by teens to build stronger connections,
express one’s self, participate in work, care for others, gain
knowledge on social contacts, and maintain their existing
relationships [1,4,10,18]. For many teenagers, the benefits
of social networking sites were deemed to be so strong that
they often outweighed privacy concerns [4]. Benefits
include building reputation, popularity, social status, and
connection [4]. According to studies by boyd in 2007,
teenagers who do not participate in social networking sites
can be divided into two categories: disenfranchised teens
and conscientious objectors [4]. Marwick and boyd discuss
how teenagers use social media to engage in discussions of
“drama,” interpersonal conflicts similar in nature to
bullying, gossip, and relational aggression but with their
own distinct connotation [21]. In a study of parents in 2011,
Yardi and Bruckman found that parents try to create rules
about computer and social media usage but it can be hard to
enforce them [27]. Parents worry their children are going to
say something or get involved in a conversation that can
have devastating consequences, especially because of the
permanency of some communications [27]. Parents
typically want visibility in the technology their children
use: some parents want their children to know their online
behavior is being watched and other parents want to watch
surreptitiously, waiting for children to make a mistake and
expose a “teachable moment” [27].
Video Chat
Several studies have investigated how adults and children
(non-teenagers) use video chat to connect with family and
friends. These have shown that it is often challenging to
maintain calls long term because of infrastructure issues
and software crashes [2] but many people “put up” with
these because of the benefits of video chat. There are also
challenges in knowing when people are available and
willing to use video chat as opposed to other technologies
like the phone [2,13,16]. Despite these issues, people find
great value in video chat systems because they allow them
to feel more ‘present’ with their remote family or friends
[6,24] and they are able to see body language and other
visual cues depicting emotion [6,16,24]. Because of the
unique benefits of video chat, people are more likely to
accommodate distance in their personal relationships [6].
Many people are concerned about their appearance over a
video link [7], yet this diminishes with usage [6].
There also exists a phenomenon where people will leave
video connections open for longer periods of time and focus
on sharing activities over distance rather than just
conversation [6,13,16,24]. This may occur in a single
location, but many people prefer to move around their home
[6,24]. Grandparents watch their grandchildren play for
long periods of time [13], parents and their adult children
perform activities together such as cooking [6], adults may
watch television together [6,24], and some long distance
partners engage in sexual acts over the video link [24].
Given the trend of people using open video connections,
several systems have been designed to better support these
needs and the sharing of activities rather than just
conversation. These have included always-on video links
between one or more households [14,15] and even mobile
devices [23]. We have also seen the design of systems
targeted for specific activity or life situations such as
reading between grandparents/children [25,26] or shared
activities between divorced parents and their children [28].
Thus, while there has clearly been a large amount of
research in the space of video chat, there are no studies
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specifically targeting teen use. The notable exception
comes from Kirk et al.’s study, which contained two
teenage participants (of 17 in total) [16]. Here they state
that they sensed teenage usage of video chat was very
different from adult users, but with the small sample were
unable to expand deeply on this. This provides further
motivation for our current study. Closely related to our
work is a study by Inkpen et al. that describes how pre-teen
girls (aged 9 and 10) used an asynchronous video
messaging system [12]. Uses included conversing, show
and tell, sharing activities, and play-acting / performing.
Our study illustrates how these and more occur during
synchronous video exchanges by teenagers.
STUDY METHODOLOGY
We conducted an interview study with teenagers who used
video chat to understand their usage of the technology.
Participants
We recruited twenty teenage participants (10 male and 10
female) through snowball sampling, word-of-mouth, and by
posting ads on sites such as Facebook and Craigslist. Four
teenagers were between the ages of 13 and 15, and sixteen
were between the ages of 16 and 18. Participants varied in
terms of how frequently they used video chat. Fifteen were
frequent users and would use video chat weekly, while five
were infrequent users who used video chat every 2-3
months. The frequent users helped us understand the
motivating factors behind video chat usage and the ways in
which video chat tools were used. The infrequent users
gave us insight into why teenagers may not use video chat
frequently and what technologies were used instead of
video chat. Twelve participants had used video chat for
over a year and the other participants had all used video
chat for several months to a year. All participants lived in a
major metropolitan city in North America and were from
middle class families of a variety of ethnicities.
Interview Method
We conducted semi-structured interviews with each
participant individually in Spring 2012. Interviews lasted
between 60 and 90 minutes. Prior to the interview, each
participant was given an outline of what types of questions
to expect and were told that data would remain confidential
and anonymous. It is our university’s ethical policy to
breach confidence in situations involving potential suicide,
child abuse or violence; no such situations arose. Parental
consent was obtained for all interviews; however, parents
were not present during the interviews and they did not see
their teenager’s data. We hoped this would allow the
participants to openly discuss their technology usage.
Five interviews were conducted in person at local coffee
shops, six interviews were conducted in person at the
participants high schools, and the remaining were
conducted at the participants’ homes. Each participant was
paid $20 for the interview. Interview questions asked the
participants about their communication practices using
video chat, the motivation behind these practices, and their
preferences on systems and devices for video chat usage.
For example, questions included “Which video
conferencing tools do you use? andWhen do you use
video chat?We also asked participants to tell us stories
about memorable video calls and their more typical calls.
The interviewer was a trained, undergraduate student
researcher in her early 20s. In retrospect, we feel this helped
considerably in gathering information from participants.
The participants repeatedly engaged with the interviewer in
conversations outside the topic of the interviews (e.g., pop
culture, activities at school), which suggests that they saw
her more as a peer than a parental figure. This latter
situation could have easily arisen if the interviewer was an
older, more senior researcher. For future studies with
teenagers, we certainly advocate our approach.
We also had the first seven participants (4 females, 3 males)
(3 under 16 years of age) complete a private online diary
about their communication routines over a 3-week period
where they received $1 per daily diary entry. We had hoped
this would provide more ‘in-the-moment’ data, yet we only
received 65 entries across the 7 participants (average 8 per
person) and the content did little to inform our findings. We
suspect that our monetary incentive was not high enough
and, perhaps more importantly, the teenagers were less
interested in doing a repeated activity over a longer time
period. Because of this, we do not report on data from the
diaries; we mention it here as a consideration for future
studies though.
Data Collection and Analysis
We kept handwritten notes for all interviews along with
audio recordings. We transcribed audio recordings and then
performed a thematic analysis on the transcribed data
(diaries and interviews). Our analysis revealed several
themes that form the focal points of our results and the
subsequent sections. In our results, we list representative
quotes along with the gender and age group of the
participant. ‘Older’ refers to teens 16 years of age and
older and ‘Younger’ refers to teens under 16 years of age.
We have chosen to not include exact ages next to quotes to
further anonymize our results, given the sometimes
sensitive nature of participants’ comments.
Our results first discuss the general practices that teens had
for video chat, including who they talked with, how video
chat compared to their uses of other technologies, and how
they initiated video calls. Following this we look at the
variety of activities that occurred over video chat including
both focused and open activities. Next we outline
privacy and trust issues that arose for the teens.
GENERAL PRACTICES FOR VIDEO CHAT
Our participants used a variety of video chat systems and
devices. Four of our participants used laptops consistently
while eight participants used laptops along with other
devices such as iPhones, iPods, and desktop computers.
Three participants consistently used desktop computers and
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two of these also used iPods. Two participants reported
constantly using their iPhones to participate in video chats
and the remaining participant reported to use an iPad and
iPhone. Fourteen participants used multiple video chat
systems where the most common was Skype (18/20)
followed by FaceTime (10/20), Tinychat (3/20), MSN
Messenger (3/20), and Google Hangouts (1/20). All
participants favored being able to use a portable or mobile
device for video chatting such as a laptop, tablet, or phone.
However, one participant did explain that he had to hold his
iPhone at awkward angles during video calls.
Desktop computers used for video chatting were often
located in a central area of the home where other family
members also had access to it. Areas like the office, living
room, and kitchen were the most common areas to keep a
desktop computer. Teenagers using laptops would also stay
located in one location for the majority of a video call. Most
participants who had access to a laptop would keep it in
their bedroom and calls were often initiated from this
location. Some participants reported moving laptops around
the home based on their location.
Who Was Called and When
For those who used video chat frequently, it was primarily
used as a tool to connect with a close group of friends,
regardless of how close they lived. While they would
regularly have a large number of contacts in their video chat
contact lists (e.g., 50-100), they would really only video
chat with a select few with whom they were comfortable
calling. This included close friends, boyfriends, or
girlfriends. Participants also typically had very few family
members on their video chat contact list, e.g., less than five.
Those participants who were infrequent video chat users
would only use the technology with family members who
lived far away. In contrast to frequent users, they preferred
to talk with friends who lived nearby in person and made
comments such as, “"why would I chat with my friend over
Skype, when I can just see her in person." This may also be
explained by the mobility of our infrequent video chat
users: all had a driver’s license and could drive as needed to
visit friends. Not all of our frequent users had this luxury.
"Before, when I had [Skype], I didn't have a car or anything
and it was just like, after school, just like talk to a person. I
think it's more fun if you can see the person's face, like you
know, you can see what they're doing" -P14, Older Female
Most participants did not trust people who were anything
less than an acquaintance when it came to video chat. Yet,
in the extreme, we did have one participant who reported
regularly conversing over video with people she had met
online and did not know in person. She explained to us that
these online friends acted like a support group to whom she
could ‘vent’. With her online friends, she did not worry
about gossip spreading or judgment because they did not
have mutual friends in common, she did not see them in
person, and they did not go to her school.
Video calls typically lasted between thirty minutes and one
hour, though some reported calls of several hours where
connections were left open. We discuss this in detail later.
Initiating Video Calls
Only one participant had scheduled video chat sessions.
This was with an extended family member where the
participant’s mother would schedule a time over email for
her daughter to video chat with her aunt. For all others,
video chat was a spontaneous activity that occurred at
varying points in the evening or on the weekend. This is
likely because video chat usage amongst teenagers was tied
more to local friends than extended family.
"I don't really need to like schedule a time to like talk to my
friends, like I see them every day at school so it's like if they
want to talk more I guess it's like, there should be like a
reason, it's not like 'Okay, six tonight and every Monday'.
It's just cuz like, yeah, I guess if like they want to talk or
something, then you just sporadically be like 'Hey I want to
talk' and then yeah. That's why I guess it's not as
scheduled" - P15, Younger Female
Participants reported logging into their video chat system
and seeing who was online before making a video call.
Skype and MSN Messenger, for example, reveal the status
of the user whether they are online, away, or offline. This
online presence indicator was enough to prompt a video call
for half of our participants. The other half said that their
online status did not indicate their availability and at times,
it did not indicate the availability of others. It is worth
noting that each participant was actively trying to discern
whether or not the online status indicated availability
though. If a contact was not online, participants said that
they would send them a text message, quick phone call, or
Facebook message to tell the other person to go online.
“People usually use Facebook over Skype so they’ll
message me and say what’s up”P4, Older Female
Video Chat Compared to Other Technologies
As a comparison, we asked participants about their use of
communication technologies other than video chat and
found fairly specific uses. Participants commonly used
Facebook when they were bored or wanted to ‘catch up’
with people quickly by reading status messages, looking at
photos, or posting wall comments. Thus, it mostly served
to fulfill a ‘browsing’ need, rather than direct
communication. As mentioned, Facebook was also used to
find people to video chat with. Text messaging was
primarily used for exchanging short and quick messages
with friends. It was often the technology our participants
turned to if they did not want to feel obligated to have a
long conversation with someone.
"Text can be short and quiet but um, Skype really requires
you to sit down and give it a lot of attention. Calls can go
on from anywhere from like thirty minutes to a couple of
hours... If it's something, like, really important than I'd
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rather say it to them in person and if, in that case, Skype is
accessible then I would use that." -P16, Older Male
Similar to other studies [24], video chat played a
communication role that was different and beyond other
technologies. It was most often not the most frequent
communication technology they used, however, our
participants unanimously explained that video chat was the
closest thing to face-to-face communication. It allowed
them to see what the remote person was actually doing and
to ‘hangout’ with them. Participants also felt they could
more easily empathize with the recipient of the call because
their facial expressions were visible and it was less likely
that a conversation was taken the wrong way. This was
useful when discussing sensitive topics (e.g., during
arguments). Participants also valued seeing facial
expressions when telling jokes or showing something
funny. What was striking was that video chat was not first
and foremost seen as a way to feel closer to the remote
person (like was found for adults [6,16,24]) since the
teenagers would see each other at school typically daily.
I enjoy that one, you can catch up and chat with them. It’s
not just like a phone where you hear them, like you hear a
bang and are like “What Is that?” but if you video chat you
can see them and like see what they’re doing… Just for the
fact that you can see their facial expressions and if you tell
a joke you can see if they actually did laugh or if it’s a fake
laugh if you don’t want to cross boundaries with
someone, like say you’re discussing a topic with someone
that is kind of iffy. You can tell by their face if they’re like
Oh, what’s this person saying?... Like conversations that
could be taken in a good way or go completely downhill.” –
P6, Older Male
Although the participants preferred video for conversing,
users expressed irritation with problems such as a lack of
Internet connection (e.g., FaceTime over Wi-Fi), software
glitches, poor audio quality, or picture distortion. Several
teenagers said that if video transmission started to lag or
interfere with audio, they would end the video connection
in preference for a clear audio-only conversation.
ACTIVITIES DURING VIDEO CHAT
All of our participants divided their attention between
multiple activities at the same time while on a video call.
Many of them reported to simultaneously browse the
Internet, chat on social networking sites, or watch television
while video chatting. For most of the participants,
multitasking was a habitual behavior. The activities and
types of conversations carried out by the participants over
video chat fell into one of two categories: focused
conversations or open connections. This reflects Kirk et
al.’s categorization [16]. Within each category, we learned
about several nuanced activities that occurred.
Focused Activities
Focused conversations and activities were reported by all of
the participants. For some of them, it was a sporadic call
where there was a sudden desire to share news or to show
something. For others, these focused activities would occur
during an existing video call.
Show and Tell. Show and Tell activities occurred most
often amongst our participants. Whether it was clothing or
personal accomplishments, teenagers enjoyed sharing these
things with one another and compared it to having friends
in the room. One teenager expressed excitement and
happiness as she told us a story about showing her friend
some new clothes that she bought.
"I'll be in my room and I'll just sit on my bed with a Skype
call on and I'll show them some stuff like if I got new
clothes or something... we always like look at our outfits
and stuff... It’s like [having] a new best friend in my room."
- P1, Older Female
The framing of the camera sometimes made it difficult for
the teenagers to show the recipient exactly what they
intended. In this case, they would spend time lining up the
camera accordingly. ‘Show and Tell’ calls could occur in
virtually any room of the house, where some locations may
be less conducive to laptop or phone placement, e.g., a
bedroom. One participant described how his friend called
him on FaceTime from the kitchen after cooking:
“The last time my friend wanted to show me something he
was trying to cook and it went completely awful and he was
telling me how he spilled and it was all over the floor and
he was going to clean it up, he was going to get the dog to
eat it. Then the dog started eating it and he was showing me
over FaceTime, kind of funny.” P6, Older Male
Sometimes the location of the call itself was the point of the
‘Show and Tell’ call. The same participant talked about a
call he received from someone in the washroom:
Uh one of the times I just couldn’t stop laughing at
this…he FaceTimes me and I didn’t really pay attention to
what was in the background and he had it so I could just
see his face and then he paused it on the face and flushed
[the toilet], and played it as he flushed it. It’s potty humor, I
know but it was just so random.P6, Older Male
Gossip. Another common focused activity done by
teenagers over video chat was gossiping. Here teenagers
actively conversed with their friends where they would talk
about other friends from school, boyfriends or girlfriends,
parents, siblings and more. This type of conversation was
beyond simply talking about one’s day and focused more
on interpersonal relationships. Marwick and boyd refer to
this type of talk as part of teenager “drama” [21]. Three
participants talked about gossiping that turned into rumors
being spread about them.
"I used [Skype] the last time to vent to [my friend] about
the problems I was having with my boyfriend. I just kind of
needed to get it off my chest and didn’t really want him to
see that I used that and I felt a lot better." P4, Older
Female
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"I think girls gossip a lot [over video], but guys gossip
maybe ten times more. I don't know if it's just our
generation, but we talk a lot. We'll like pick somebody and
we'll all like have a couple of things to say about that
person and then okay that guys done, how about this
person… In a sense, I guess you can think of it as bullying
but it's kind of like we're venting out whatever we have to
say." - P13, Older Male
Participants expressed keen interest in topics that revolved
around peers or theatrical occurrences in their daily lives.
What made video the best tool for this activity was the
instant gratification of venting to friends without having to
travel distances. The video systems allowed our participants
to see their friends expressions so they could laugh with
them when they mocked others. This would be difficult to
detect over text and even a phone call.
Flirting, Nudity, and Sexual Acts. Some participants also
talked about flirting with others over video chat. In these
cases, participants said they would be talking directly with
another person and as the conversation continued, both
genders would begin to show skin, and in some cases,
even masturbate with one another over video chat. This
typically occurred late at night in the participants’
bedrooms. We note that only older teens (4 male, 1 female)
brought this up. Participants explained that sex talk and
activities over video were better than on the phone because
you could actually see the person doing the activity.
“Yeah, well my friends try to get girls to show [their
breasts]… like take their shirt off.” P11, Older Male
"A lot of guys brag about how they get all of these bitches
and what not, like oh yo, you should see what we did
[there's] the casual strip teases and what not. Just like
showing each others' junk, I guess you can call it … [Sex
talk is] easier, isn't it? with video, cuz you can see each
other. It's like, some parents are really strict and they don't
want you to see each other then why not just do it on the
video. You got your room locked, you have your privacy."
P13, Older Male
A female participant told us a similar story about being
asked to strip and dance for a boy over video chat.
"I remember like on MSN, a guy would ask me to go on and
stuff, but then he'd be like 'Ooh, do something else', but like
I was kind of uncomfortable because I was only 13 or 14 so
I was like 'Nooo'… He was my age and just pervy, more or
less. So he just wanted me to, I don't know, like dance
around." -P14, Older Female
Two participants shared stories with us about their friends
who would make video calls while naked or with the
intention to get naked:
"I've had some friends who intentionally go naked [on
Skype] just to liven up the conversation, I guess" P12,
Older Male
"A friend of mine, her and her friend, in front of a web cam
played strip poker with like two other guys on the opposite
web cam. And they just, boobs and all, just straight on the
web cam." -P14, Older Female
Open Connections & Activities
Like families with children and long distance couples
[6,13,16,24], the teenagers in our study also kept their video
chat calls open for longer periods of time where they would
engage in a variety of activities visible on the video
channel. In these cases, they wouldn’t necessarily be
engaged in focused conversations or acts with others like
were the case for the previously described activities.
Instead, they would simply be ‘hanging out’ together over
video chat, much like friends would be together in person.
This type of open connection would typically last longer
than more focused calls.
"[I] just set [Video Chat] up and I could be doing my
homework, eating food, watching TV [while] talking to
someone on Face Time."P6, Older Male
Our analysis showed several interesting situations revolving
around these ‘open connections.’ We outline each next.
Multi-Person Calls. Three participants described their
practices of video chatting with multiple friends at the same
time. In this case, each would connect from his or her own
home using Group Skype calling. While one might expect
this to be a ‘focused activity,’ participants described it as an
open activity where they would fluidly move in and out of
conversation with people in the group. Here they did not
feel an obligation to stay in front of the video chat software.
Instead, they felt freer to watch television in the background
or get up to move around the house without making an
announcement. Teenagers were more inclined to watch
others communicate until it was their turn to talk.
For example, one participant described being in a multi-
person call where some of his friends started to flirt with
others in the call. He expressed feeling left outin this
situation. This exclusion from the conversation gave him
opportunities to go to and from the computer as he pleased.
As he described, he would often go into the kitchen to grab
snacks as the video call continued. Another participant also
reported similar feelings of neglect during a multi-person
conversation. He explained the difficulty of talking over the
other participants in the call and the frustration that could
arise. Instead of staying on camera, he would wait his turn
to talk and in the mean time did not feel tied to the
computer as his friends carried on the conversation. In this
way, teens were able to ‘hangout’ in a multi-person call.
"I've talked to 5 people at once.... It's not exactly fun
because everybody talks over each other." P10, Younger
Male
Teenagers were more likely to participate in group calls
later in the evening or on weekends because others were
more likely available at these times. For example, one
7
participant reported having a multi-person conversation
with a friend at a slumber party. Teenagers were also more
likely to participate in multi-person conversations when
using software such as Google Hangouts and Tinychat. One
participant used Skype to connect with multiple people via
video, but unlike the other software, multi-person calls in
Skype are not free. As such, this participant described how
she took advantage of Skype’s free trials:
"You have to pay for conference calling [over Skype] but
you can get a seven day trial... So I'll just create a new e-
mail and a new Skype... I probably have about 52 Skypes
already but only one main one that I use."- P1, Older
Female
Homework. Six participants (3 Younger, 3 Older) used
open calls while working on school coursework. They
would leave the video chat running while completing their
assignments on the computer. During this time, they would
multitask and look up multiple websites in different web
browser tabs. Occasionally, these participants would return
to the video call and ask their friend a question or check up
on progress. Overall, convenience was the main reason
teenagers chose to do their homework over Skype rather
than in person. For example, one teenager told us a story
about doing homework in the evening when his parents
were not able to drive him to a friend's house:
"[With Skype] You have the visual aid, you can show them
what you've done rather than just try to explain it… It's the
convenience factor, being able to do it from home. Let's say
I'm at home, it's like after dinner, usually parents are just
like 'Okay we're really not going to be leaving the house at
like seven or eight o'clock' but you do have like this difficult
[homework assignment]. It's just again the convenience
factor you don't have to leave the house you can just be like
'Okay let's go on Skype, we'll figure this out' rather than
you have to drive fifteen to thirty minutes, like wherever you
may live in town to come help me with this problem" -P16,
Older Male
Performing. At times, participants felt the need to share
activities with others over for video chat. Four participants
shared stories with us about ‘performing’ over video chat.
For example, one participant told us a story about how he,
along with his friends, would skateboard in front of the
camera and get feedback or encouragement on their tricks.
In this case, video chat took place on the participant’s
iPhone over FaceTime. The friends enjoyed this activity
and video chat allowed them to be together for it remotely.
“[My friend and] I skate board so like sometimes he’ll go
in his garage and he’ll show me a new trick he learned, like
he’ll set his camera up and he’ll try it a bunch until he
learns it.” P6, Older Male
Despite the benefits, setting the camera up for these
situations and properly framing the video was a challenge.
The participant ran through his trick a few times,
positioning the phone at different angles before lining the
camera up in the correct view to get feedback from his
friends. The convenience in showing something
instantaneously was the main reason why teenagers
preferred to perform over video chat rather than in person.
Other participants shared stories about dancing in front of
the camera or watching their friends play instruments over
video chat.
"Sometimes I dance [over video] but that's just cuz it's
hilarious… It's more convenient, so it's just like, if the
person lives a while away you're just like 'Okay go on
[Skype] and I'll show you'." - P14, Older Female
"My friends…practice [guitar] over Skype…It's the ease of
use; you don't have to bring the guitar to their house. You
can just be like 'I just want to brush this by you and see
what you think' and you can quickly show themIt's the
convenience factor. It’s just way easier to just do it over
video than to have to leave the house." - P16, Older Male
Gameplay. Two participants talked about using video chat
while playing games either on an external device or on the
same computer used for video chatting. Although their
interactions were minimal, when needed, they shared tips
with one another on how to complete levels and shared the
excitement of completing a challenge.
"A lot of people when they play video games like to have a
mic to chat with their friends and then if you don't want to
go out and purchase a mic it could be easier to just have
your laptop set up next to your equipment and be able to
talk to them it's just like having them in the room with
you." - P16, Older Male
PRIVACY AND TRUST
Although we initially thought that video chat would raise
serious privacy concerns amongst teens, participants
generally felt comfortable and at ease with the technology.
This was largely because they typically only conversed with
those people who they knew well. However, participants
did describe challenges with appearance, the chance of
parental invasion, and background viewers.
Room and Personal Appearances
Eleven of our participants said that they were concerned
about the appearance of the location being captured over
video chat and what this might do to their ‘image.’ Yet
rather than cleaning up an area, participants explained that
they could simply tilt the camera away from a mess.
"You don't want to be called a slob." P5, Older Male
"If you don't want people seeing a certain area, you just
kind of tilt the camera one way and just leave it there."
- P6, Older Male
Some participants used desktop computers that were
situated away from a wall, and did not have the luxury of
tilting the camera. In this case, it was even more important
for them to clean an area prior to initiating a video call.
8
"[When we're on Skype] I feel like he's at my house and
obviously if I bring someone over I'm not just gunna have,
you know, my underwear lying around. I like to clean it
up." - P14, Older Female
Eleven of our participants said that were concerned about
their own appearances on camera; this is similar to findings
with adults [7]. Participants were more likely to beautify
themselvesbefore having a conversation with the opposite
sex. Several people said that looking nice on camera made
them feel better about themselves and gave them more
confidence. One participant described how her appearance
depended on which friend she was connecting with:
"Sometimes I do my makeup a little bit because [not
wearing any] makes me feel washed out [and] like crap.
But it depends who I’m on [Skype] with because if it’s like
[friend’s name] then I don't care. I’ll be like Oh I’m not
wearing any make up[and] she won’t be wearing any
makeup [either] but she looks gorgeous all the time so
yeah. I just sit over here and just like hide.” P1, Older
Female
Another participant also talked about the challenges of her
video chat system ‘controlling’ her appearance, rather than
being in control of it herself:
"The worst is when [Skype] crashes or the picture is frozen,
and you can just hear the person... The problem is that it
freezes on like the ugliest face ever." P9, Older Female
Parental Invasion
Parental invasion was an issue with our participants for any
communication technology. Teenagers who used social
networking sites were okay with using a computer in a
populated area and would conceal their information by
changing their privacy settings or blocking out family
members from seeing their photos or posts on their social
networking accounts. Yet video chat presented a different
challenge: Our participants had to worry about parents
overhearing or overseeing video calls and told us they
would often carefully think about how to hide certain chats
from their parents. In particular, this included gossiping,
flirting, and sexual activities. Naturally, teenagers preferred
to perform these activities in private areas because they
were afraid of being caught and punished. Participants who
did not have access to a computer in a private area showed
frustrations and wanted a computer in their bedroom.
"I usually won't turn my camera on if I'm with my family. I
really like having the privacy, myself, when I have the
camera on… If you're having a private conversation with
your friends, like a lot of that stuff you just wouldn't talk
around your family or you wouldn't talk around other
friends and it's the same thing, like it doesn't matter which
platform you're saying it on, you still want that privacy." -
P16, Older Male
Only two parents explicitly regulated the computer usage of
participants in our study and tried to carefully watch what
their teenage children did online. These were the parents of
two thirteen-year-old males. Both sets of parents had the
passwords for their teenagers social networking sites and
would implement curfews or set times when their teenagers
could use the computer. One participant told us a story
about how his parents grounded him when they found a
conversation that he had with a friend over Facebook.
Conversely, nobody reported being disciplined because of
conversations they had over video chat.
Background Viewing and Listening
Teenagers showed concern about talking to others over
video chat and not always knowing who was in the vicinity
during a call. Due to camera restrictions, only a limited
view of the area was visible. Our participants explained the
ease of controlling the angle of the camera to focus on less
distracting areas like a wall. Some apprehension was
noticeable here, as constricted views of the room raised
privacy concerns for the teens and held them back from
openly talking about deep subjects. They also gossiped less
when they thought others might be able to hear them.
“Like as I was saying you can’t be as open [over Skype]
because you never know if someone else could be um, in the
room with them like listening... Because you can’t see the
whole room.”- P8, Older Female
Interestingly, none of our participants brought up video
framing and background viewing as a concern while
participating in sexual activities over video chat. We
suspect that this was because sexual activities always
occurred in the evening after parents were asleep and they
were done only by participants who had the ability to video
chat from their bedroom. Six participants openly talked
about their concern of hackers connecting to their camera
and watching them as the changed clothes or slept. All of
these participants took preventative measures such as not
adding strangers to their video chat accounts or by putting
tape over their video camera when it was not in use.
DISCUSSION AND CONCLUSIONS
We now compare our findings to previous studies of
teenagers’ technology usage and video chat studies of
adults/kids. Following this, we discuss design implications.
Comparison to Teen Messaging
Like IM and texting [8,9,10], teenagers use video chat
primarily with their friends and highly value the ability to
multi-task while doing so. Multi-tasking even takes the
form of multi-person video calls, which is also found in IM
[9] but not possible over text messaging. Video chat also
allows teenagers to converse and ‘hangout’ with their
friends outside of typical ‘in-person’ socializing hours, as
found with IM and text [8,9,10]. Participants described the
initiation of video calls in a similar manner to how past
studies described the initiation of IM chats where
availability status indicators and messages were carefully
used and watched [9]. In this way, teenagers regulated their
autonomy with video chat, much like IM [9].
9
Like IM and text [8,9,10], video chat can be done outside of
the radar of parents. This was especially the case for
teenagers who had their own laptop or phone that supported
video chat because they could use them in their bedroom.
Teenagers who could only video chat from public home
locations were concerned about parents looking over their
shoulders during a call; this is the same as studies of IM
[20]. With IM, teenagers were also concerned about others
reading saved copies of chat messages after the
conversation [9]. With video chat, privacy concerns were
typically ‘in-the-moment’ because video chat systems do
not save content (unless third party software is used).
Comparison to Adult and Child Video Chat
Like prior reports of adult use of video [13,16,24], teens
shared the benefits of seeing body language and facial
expressions during a video call. Teenagers also participated
in open video link connections over extended periods of
time, similar to adults and children [13,16,24]. Yet the
difference with teenagers is that calls were nearly always
spontaneous. This contrasts with typical behaviors by
adults where video calls were most often scheduled [13,24].
Pre-teen children were found in prior studies to engage in
‘Show and Tell, Activity Sharing, and ‘Performing Acts
over asynchronous video [12]. We saw these same
practices occur for teenagers over synchronous video. Yet
teenagers also performed different activities: Similar to
long-distance couples that use video chat [24], some
teenagers performed sexual acts over video links.
Our results also showed that teenagers have different
notions of ‘distance’ as compared to adults. Adults
typically use video chat with family members who live in
different cities, across country, or across the world [13,16].
Teenagers have a much more localized sense of distance.
That is, teenagers would most frequently participate in
video chats with other teens in their own neighbourhood.
This is mainly because many teenagers do not have the
luxury of driving to meet with others in town. They also
often face parental restrictions about what time of day they
can leave home. In some cases, it can also be cumbersome
to travel with objects in order to show them or use them as
part of activities (e.g., new clothes, musical instruments,
skateboard ramps). In these situations, video chat provides a
convenient alternative for hanging out with friends. It also
means that video is not used first and foremost to feel
‘close’ to someone since teenagers see each other in person
typically the next day at school. This contrasts adults
where the focal point of video calls is to feel close to the
remote people given the long distances [6,16,24].
Existing studies show that multi-person calls are not typical
amongst adults [2,6,13,16]. Our results showed that
teenagers engage in them more frequently. We suspect this
is the case because of teenagers’ needs to hangout rather
than use video chat to feel close. The need for feelings of
closeness amongst adults creates a preference for more
intimate, one-on-one calls [6].
Teenagers showed little patience for bad connections. When
the Internet connection was slow, teenagers would drop the
video feature and continue an audible conversation only, or
they would drop the call all together. Conversely, adults
often endure slow connections in order to get a glimpse of
their loved ones [6]. This suggests again that teenagers
desire to see the remote person is not necessarily about
feeling close to them; instead, it is about hanging out and, if
video fails, they will quickly switch to another technology.
Design Implications
While we feel it is beyond the scope of this paper to provide
full design ideas as to how one might design ‘better’ video
chat systems for teens, we do discuss several challenges
that we think are pertinent for this design area.
First, there are clearly issues that teenagers face with video
chat technology. Teenagers move between locations (both
inside and outside the house) and need to capture a variety
of activities on camera. Here camera framing is an issue as
is laptop or phone placement and movement. In multi-party
calls, it can be hard to hear over people despite the desire to
have such calls. Teens are also concerned about knowing
what is captured on camera and who might not be captured
but still able to see or hear the video call. For the most part,
these all suggest better cameras with wider fields of view,
multiple cameras, better placement options for cameras, etc.
Yet looking at the teenagers’ perspective of wanting to
maintain a large degree of privacy, a small laptop screen
and single camera lend themselves more naturally to not
being seen or overheard by others. Clearly this is a
challenging paradox that any future design needs to
address. Unlike social networking sites, teenagers cannot
easily block parents’ access to video chat calls by adjusting
privacy settings and such. Parents can simply stand within
earshot or a visible distance of the screen. Instead, physical
obstacles and architecture (e.g., a bedroom) play a clear role
in regulating privacy when it comes to teen video chat.
Second, from the parents’ perspective, there are other issues
relating to teenager use of video chat. While we did not
study parents or their rules for video chat usage, past
studies show that parents are concerned about what their
children do online and fear they will do something with
lasting consequences [27]. For example, video chat makes
it easy for teenagers to perform sexually explicit activities
that are viewable by others. This clearly puts them at risk.
Yet it is a different type of risk than is commonly taught at
schools around sexual education and the promotion of
abstinence or safe sex. Parents may need to worry less
about ‘real world’ sex, but instead be fearful of cybersex
and public viewing or recording of such acts. Thus, yet
again, we see a paradox: Teenagers want technologies that
support ‘private’ activities with their friends, while parents
likely do not want their children engaging in such activities.
However, video chat is also used by teenagers for more
positive activities such as doing homework together,
10
visiting with friends when one is not able to travel, etc.
Teenagers can stay under the roofof their parents yet still
engage in activities with their friends. This could easily
help alleviate likely parental concerns associated with
‘going out,’ such as drunk drivers, pre-marital sex, physical
violence, etc. This suggests that the best way to manage the
use of video chat systems is through social exchanges and
education. For example, parents should be aware of the
benefits and risks associated with video chat and attempt to
openly discuss them with their teenage children.
Alternatively, designs focused on providing parents with
means to monitor teenage video chat activities would likely
not work. Teenagers would simply find workarounds.
This leaves interesting design and social challenges for the
topic area. Our own future work will continue to explore
the design of video chat systems for teenagers as part of our
broader focus on video systems for families.
ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS
We thank the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research
Council of Canada and the GRAND Networks of Centres of
Excellence for funding this research. We also thank the
reviewers for their very helpful revision suggestions.
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