I lost count of the number of times I have read, or been told, that teens do not care about their privacy, online.
I did not do any systematic research in this area, but my limited observations (and common sense), make me seriously doubt that claim. I think that the relationship between teens and privacy is, well, complicated.
Privacy as control over information
There are quite a few definitions of privacy around. If you are interested in the topic, the book ‘Understanding Privacy’ by Daniel J. Solove is a good place to start. The key, though, is not that privacy is the absence of information about someone; but, rather, it is the ‘control we have over information about ourselves’.
Teens carefully curate what they post on social media – the poses in photos, the filters, the hashtags, the captions, etc. Some will even delete posts (e.g., Instagram photos) that received what they see as small engagement (e.g., number of likes or comments).
They also use different social media platforms and accounts to interact with different audiences, and have embraced platforms like Snapchat, which keeps their communications away from the prying eyes of adults.
To me, that is a serious attempt to try to control information.
Having said that, they do share information that many adults wouldn’t, because it is too sensitive or to valuable. So, what is happening?
Here is what I think is happening.
- Teens are not aware that they are revealing certain data
For instance, some teens I chatted with do not realise that their social media posts, or photos, have geo tags, revealing where the teens are posting from, or where they took the picture. When they realise that, many switch off automatic geotagging, if not permanently, then for specific occasions.
Or they may leave a candid comment on a friend’s social media update, and not realise that the friend’s account (and, hence, the comment) is public,
This is an education or awareness issue. Not an attitude issue. And certainly, not specific to teenagers.
- Teens do not think that certain information is sensitive
Some teens may be wary about saying which school they go to, yet not hesitate to post a picture with their friends, in their school uniform.
Likewise, teens may only post a photo that has the right pose and filter, and with a caption that was carefully crafted. Yet, be very open about who they are with and what they are doing.
So, it’s not that teens post anything and everything on social media. It’s just that their idea of what is sensitive information is different from our idea.
My point, here, is that teens do share information that they probably shouldn’t, but that is not because they do not value privacy. They do. They certainly want to be in control of what they share on social media, and with whom.
The issue is one of education about what they are sharing inadvertently, or about the insight provided by what they do share.