The Facebook feeds of young people from disadvantaged neighborhoods often contained references to murders and fights, and special pages were created to post embarrassing material, the study found. While the social media habits of more affluent teens have been well-studied, this is among the first to look at what's happening among poorer kids.
Robin Stevens, a public health researcher at Penn's School of Nursing who led the study, was surprised by the amount of negativity young Facebook users encountered. "I didn't know that people are reposting fights from schools and that kids have to relive shaming events," she said. "I feel like this is gossip just gone viral."
This year, a Camden mother saw posts on her son's Facebook page that led her to believe he was involved in gang activity. Before she was able to act, the boy, 13-year-old Nate Plummer Jr., was killed. A 17-year-old girl was charged. Social media also played a role in school tensions in Coatesville late last year.
Lt. John Stanford, spokesman for the Philadelphia Police Department, said he sees lots of examples of young people recording fights and crimes, then posting on social media or YouTube. He worries that the posts are making kids competitive, leading to more violence. Social media expose them to negative behavior from their own neighborhoods and beyond. "You start to have kids that aren't even in the same circle seeing what other kids are doing," he said.
Rachel Holzman, deputy chief of student services for the School District of Philadelphia, said social media often exacerbate arguments and play "a pretty large part in some of the climate issues we have in some schools."
Sometimes problems she thought were solved flare again in the digital world. "If we think we've mediated it or we've handled it in school, 16 other people could get involved in social media and it's not over," she said. "It makes it harder to quell things."
Asked if this is a frequent problem, she said, "It comes up all the time because every teenager in America is on social media."
She said she sees similar behavior among young people of varying socio-economic backgrounds.
Katrina McCombs, deputy superintendent for school support for the Camden City School District, agreed that sites like Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram have allowed gossip to take a new form. "It's just a different way for harmful messages to be communicated," she said.
Even eight years ago, when she was a principal, she was baffled by a series of fights between girls in her school. She eventually learned the disputes stemmed from ongoing cyber bullying. The fighting stopped after the school got parents to step in.
The district is also concerned about gangs using social media to communicate. It has been working with police to monitor gangs and inform parents about gang activity and cyber bullying.
McCombs said cyber bullying is hardly restricted to disadvantaged areas.
"It's just another vehicle for bullying to occur, and we know that bullying occurs everywhere," she said.
Stevens, who directs Penn's Health Equity and Media Lab, is interested primarily in the health and well-being of adolescents who live in neighborhoods burdened by poverty and crime. She thinks social media could create a safer virtual environment. "I see it as a tool that's really exciting," she said. "I am also disturbed about some of the things that are going on."
Despite the unpleasant content, young people she interviewed also saw social media as a positive way to connect with family and friends.
Her team asked 60 African American and Latino 13- to 20-year-olds from Camden in 2011 and 2012 about their social media use. Stevens worked for Rutgers when the research began. The study was published this year in the journal New Media and Society.
Facebook was the dominant form of social media in Stevens' interview sample. Sixty-three percent said they used it frequently. Only 17 percent said they never or rarely used it. Thirty-seven percent were frequent users of Instagram and 27 percent were big Twitter users. In her more recent survey, the percentage of youths reporting use of a site at least once a day was 75 percent for Facebook, 59 percent for Instagram, 35 percent for Snapchat, and 28 percent for Twitter.
The researchers found more negative "drama" on Facebook. "I think Facebook is, like, a ghetto news center for, like, who's died, who's pregnant, find out everything is bad in the world but nothing's good," one 15-year-old told them.
A recurring theme was fights that began on Facebook and spilled into real life, or videos of fights that were posted on the site. There was enough competition for "likes" of pictures that girls wore bikinis to get them. Exposing or "hood" pages were used to shame people - most often women or gay men - for real or fictional behavior, frequently sexual promiscuity.
"It's never nothing positive," a 19-year-old said. "It's like, 'I'm a put this person down. This person right here, she's a gold digger.' "
Asked about Stevens' study, a Facebook spokesperson responded: "In order to maintain a safe environment on Facebook, we have community standards that describe what is and is not allowed on the service. Anyone can report content to us if they think it violates our standards. Our teams review these reports rapidly and will remove the content if there is a violation."
Stevens said she hopes social media platforms will address the problem of negativity, perhaps making it easier to remove inappropriate material.
She thinks adults should know more about what's happening on social media, but believes young people themselves must be part of any effort to make Facebook and its competitors more positive places.
She sees her study as an early step toward that change. "It's really important to me for this to become part of the social conversation," she said.