Keeping Teens ‘Private’ on Facebook Won’t Protect Them

(Originally written for TIME Magazine)

We’re afraid of and afraid for teenagers. And nothing brings out this dualism more than discussions of how and when teens should be allowed to participate in public life.

Last week, Facebook made changes to teens’ content-sharing options. They introduced the opportunity for those ages 13 to 17 to share their updates and images with everyone and not just with their friends. Until this change, teens could not post their content publicly even though adults could. When minors select to make their content public, they are given a notice and a reminder in order to make it very clear to them that this material will be shared publicly. “Public” is never the default for teens; they must choose to make their content public, and they must affirm that this is what they intended at the point in which they choose to publish.

Representatives of parenting organizations have responded to this change negatively, arguing that this puts children more at risk. And even though the Pew Internet & American Life Project has found that teens are quite attentive to their privacy, and many other popular sites allow teens to post publicly (e.g. Twitter, YouTube, Tumblr), privacy advocates are arguing that Facebook’s decision to give teens choices suggests that the company is undermining teens’ privacy.

But why should youth not be allowed to participate in public life? Do paternalistic, age-specific technology barriers really protect or benefit teens?

One of the most crucial aspects of coming of age is learning how to navigate public life. The teenage years are precisely when people transition from being a child to being an adult. There is no magic serum that teens can drink on their 18th birthday to immediately mature and understand the world around them. Instead, adolescents must be exposed to — and allowed to participate in — public life while surrounded by adults who can help them navigate complex situations with grace. They must learn to be a part of society, and to do so, they must be allowed to participate.

Most teens no longer see Facebook as a private place. They befriend anyone they’ve ever met, from summer-camp pals to coaches at universities they wish to attend. Yet because Facebook doesn’t allow youth to contribute to public discourse through the site, there’s an assumption that the site is more private than it is. Facebook’s decision to allow teens to participate in public isn’t about suddenly exposing youth; it’s about giving them an option to treat the site as being as public as it often is in practice.

Rather than trying to protect teens from all fears and risks that we can imagine, let’s instead imagine ways of integrating them constructively into public life. The key to doing so is not to create technologies that reinforce limitations but to provide teens and parents with the mechanisms and information needed to make healthy decisions. Some young people may be ready to start navigating broad audiences at 13; others are not ready until they are much older. But it should not be up to technology companies to determine when teens are old enough to have their voices heard publicly. Parents should be allowed to work with their children to help them navigate public spaces as they see fit. And all of us should be working hard to inform our younger citizens about the responsibilities and challenges of being a part of public life. I commend Facebook for giving teens the option and working hard to inform them of the significance of their choices.

(Originally written for TIME Magazine)

One thought on “Keeping Teens ‘Private’ on Facebook Won’t Protect Them

  1. I see this from two different perspectives. As a researcher and adult social media user, I agree with you. Privacy settings are subject to change at any time, and teens are wise and adaptable not to take false comforts into account. I/we would be wise to do the same.

    From my other perspective this issue is much more complicated. As a mom, I’ve seen the strategies my kids use to communicate in social media, developing conventions mostly through games because the main social media platforms weren’t available to them and then trying to carry those conventions over into major social media platforms once they gain access. Working with kids to guide them into appropriate behavior is near impossible, because so little of what they put out there resembles what I would or what I see my professional colleagues putting out there. It’s difficult to be a guide if you don’t know the ultimate goal. Am I helping them to craft a social media face that will carry them through life and not come back to bite them? If so, what would that look like? Or am I teaching them about the types of connections people make online?

    So much of the guidance out there was developed through paranoia and not through social media savvy, and what counts as savvy for research is only a drop of water for the thirsty parents out there crawling through a desert of good guidance (I know that’s an exaggeration, but I’m leaving it there because I find it funny.)

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