Do Teens Understand Online Privacy Better Than We Think?

When it comes to social media and privacy, we grownups think that teens don’t get it. Don’t they realize, we say, that what they put on social media can go anywhere?

It may just be, though, that teens get it better than we do.

The Pew Internet and American Life Project and the Berkman Center for Internet and Society just released a really interesting report entitled “Teens, Social Media, and Privacy.”  Working together, they surveyed more than 800 youth between 12 and 17 years old about what they do, and what they share, on social media. They are definitely sharing more than they used to, compared to earlier data:

  • 91 percent post photos of themselves, up from 79 percent
  • 71 percent post the name of their schools, up from 49 percent
  • 71 percent post the name of their cities or towns, up from 61 percent
  • 53 percent post their email addresses, up from 29 percent
  • 20 percent post their cell phone numbers, up from 2 percent

This is the kind of thing that makes parents crazy. It conjures up all sorts of worries about predators tracking them down and kidnapping them or doing other bad things. We feel like we are safer if nobody knows who or where we are.

But the reality is that anonymity is vanishing fast. Certainly for adults there is no such thing—it takes no time at all to find information about just about anyone (if you’ve never Googled yourself, you should). I think that teens take this for granted; they accept the new reality and don’t expect that kind of privacy.

It’s not that teens don’t care at all about privacy; they do. More than half keep their Facebook page private (60 percent) or have removed people from the network or friends list (74 percent). Around half have deleted or edited posts (59 percent), deleted comments (53 percent) or removed their names from photos (45 percent). Nearly one third (31 percent) have deleted or deactivated an entire profile or account.

Teens do think about online privacy, the study shows—they just think about it differently than adults. They think less about hiding posts, and more about what they post—and where they post it. More are using platforms like Twitter, Instagram or Snapchat, which allow them more flexibility to control who sees what they post. They pick and choose in sophisticated and deliberate ways that don’t occur to many adults.

Their world is a world of online sharing. That’s their baseline; that’s all they’ve ever known. And yes, there are risks and problems with this. Nothing is truly private or ephemeral online, and there are all sorts of ways social media can go bad—cyberbullying is a clear example, and there are plenty of stories of people losing out on a job or a college admittance because of something they have posted online.  But I really think that youth are learning to navigate all of this more quickly than adults—because they live in the space. They are learning from experience.

I’ve been thinking, too, that there is a real upside to the transparency. I see more tolerance in teens today—or at least ore openness to difference, maybe because they see more of it on all kinds of media. The Internet makes the world bigger and at the same time more accessible; it makes it easier to find community, to find like-minded people and to understand that you aren’t alone.

Parents aren’t off the hook, of course. They really do need to talk with their teens about privacy and help them understand all the possible ramifications of sharing their information—and thoughts—on social media. But during those conversations, parents should be sure to listen too.

There’s a lot our kids can teach us.