Teens’ attitudes towards online privacy and online safety

There is the stereotype that “kids these days” share too much on social media, about themselves and about their actions, without much care or concern.


And, then, there is also that other stereotype that “kids these days” are so obsessed with image that they carefully curate the images that they share, thoughtfully choose the captions that go with those images, and masterfully consider the best time of the day to post, even deleting posts that don’t attract a certain number of reactions (views, likes, comments…).


So… which one is true? Do “kids these days” post on social media with abandon, or with great care?


The answer, as with many things in life, lies somewhere in the middle of these two extreme views. According to research published in the journal “New Media & Society”, teens may share images or information that older people think is too revealing… but, they do so with great awareness that whatever they share is public, and that sharing carries risks.


The paper in question is entitled ‘“Don’t be dumb—that’s the rule I try to live by”: A closer look at older teens’ online privacy and safety attitudes’, and was co-authored by Denise E Agosto* and June Abbas.


Agosto and Abbas conducted background questionnaires and focus groups with 98 teens aged 18 to 19 years old, in the US. They found that the vast majority of research participants (96 out of the 98) were concerned with the privacy implications of what they posted online. Furthermore, this concern shaped which social media platforms they used, and how they used them.


The teens’ concern with the privacy implications of their social media activity arose from the following perceptions:

>> There is no such thing as online privacy, which requires teens to consider carefully what to share publicly vs within a group.

 >> They are uncomfortable with the idea that third parties may be able to access and capture their data, which also shapes what they share in different media. Namely, they were very aware that:

  • Public information may be accessible through online searches, long after it was posted, and even from accounts that have since been closed;
  • Authorities may request access to their social media accounts, and compromising content may limit their options (e.g., in terms of employment);
  • Some social media platforms attract very broad audiences (e.g., Facebook), so there is a need to curate content in different media;
  • Online activity may be monitored by those that own the hardware (e.g., computers in school libraries), or the network connection.

>> The design of social media platforms incentivises public sharing, so they feel a tension between their desire to share with a limit audience and the incentives to share publicly. For instance, via the limited functionality of private accounts (e.g., retweeting on Twitter), or the visibility of positive feedback on content shared (e.g., likes).

>> It is important to consider the audience of different platforms, and the impression created by what they share. This impacts on their technology choice and their technology use, depending on specific goals.


So, it seems that teens are very aware of privacy issues, and that they adopt a combination of strategies for careful impression management. Rather than over-sharing, they engage in “curated sharing”.


The situation was very different went it came to attitudes towards online safety.


Agosto and Abbas’s study found that the research participants were aware of the potential risk of identity theft and hacking, However, they felt that those risks didn’t really impact on them and, thus, they did not fear for their physical safety, even if some of them had had negative experiences with “creepy old guys”. They did express concerns over emotional safety, though. They mentioned worrying about being humiliated online, getting their feelings hurt, and the increasingly vitriolic speech.


They viewed online safety as an acquired skill, developed through experience (e.g., being hacked), observation (e.g., friends making their accounts private) and maturity.  Because of the learned nature of online safety, they saw themselves as educated in terms of online safety, and able to protect themselves. However, they believed that younger and older generations were at risk, given their limited experience with social media. They also though that younger users lacked the “emotional and intellectual maturity” (p. 359) to use social media sensibly. Consequently, some felt the responsibility to monitor their older and younger relatives’ use of social media.



So, where are we on the posting with abandon vs great care debate?


It seems that older teens are very much aware of theoretical privacy and safety risks presented by social media. They adopt very sophisticated approaches to managing the former, but may be a bit over confident regarding the latter. As for how to teach teens about online privacy and safety, the paper suggests moving away from scare tactics, and focusing, instead, on teaching best practices. This is a suggestion that I am fully on board with – not just for the teens, but also for the grandparents 😉


What “best practices” would you like to share?



* I actually met Denise many years ago, when we were both teenagers participating in an exchange programme. An extremely valuable experience, which opened my (and my family’s) eyes to the variety of experiences and views around the world, and triggered my curiosity about other cultures. I warmly recommend that families participate in this type of exchange programmes.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s