My Topics

24 April 2024

The little spy by my side... How teens perceive algorithms on social media

On social media, the (news) content recommended to young people is heavily influenced by algorithms – programs that learn users’ preferences. This study in Social Media + Society explores how teens perceive, learn about and deal with this mostly covert content personalization. It seems that even though young people have a sense that something is happening, it is hard for them to put their insights into words.

Take aways

  • The recognition of algorithms by young people is context-specific, varying according to the social media site and type of content in question. 
  • It is typically triggered by expectancy violations, such as the recommendation of unexpected content, or when the site explicitly mentions personalization cues.
  • Even when teens have intuitive, experienced-based insights into news personalization, they are not automatically able to put these into words.
  • Knowing algorithms does not necessarily mean that young people try to intervene in algorithmic decisions. For example, they see them as inevitable, and taking too much effort to interfere.

Study information

  • Who?

    22 Dutch teens aged 16-26 years.

  • Where?

    The Netherlands

  • How?

    The researcher conducted semi-structured in-depth interviews about social media use. During the interview, participants scrolled through social media apps, thinking aloud, and theorizing why the platforms recommended specific content to them. The researcher then analyzed the interviews along three dimensions: knowledge, feelings, and behavior around algorithms.

Facts and findings

  • Whether young people recognized the presence of algorithms within a context depended on three elements:
    • the platform: algorithms were more evident on some platforms that push content on users;
    • the offered features: for example, they expected more influence on explore feature than in stories);
    • the type of content: they were less likely to think of algorithms when looking at “regular” content vs. explicit advertising.
  • Some participants felt neutral about algorithms, as being a rational, mathematical process. Some felt positive, thinking they save time and provide relevant content. And some felt very negative, seeing them merely as a tool to stimulate consumption.
  • Overall, participants knew ways to influence the algorithm, such as unfollow accounts, report, or mute.
  • There were four reasons for the teens not to try to influence the algorithm: Because they thought that algorithms are not controllable, once they followed an account it becomes a habit hard to break, challenging the algorithm takes a lot of effort. Finally, some indicated that they were happy with the recommendations.
  • The teens asked for more transparency of how algorithms collect their data and more direct influence on what they get to see, including the opportunity to manually adjust their feed.