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)

thoughts on Pew’s latest report: notable findings on race and privacy

Yesterday, Pew Internet and American Life Project (in collaboration with Berkman) unveiled a brilliant report about “Teens, Social Media, and Privacy.” As a researcher who’s been in the trenches on these topics for a long time now, none of their finding surprised me but it still gives me absolute delight when our data is so beautifully in synch. I want to quickly discuss two important issues that this report raise.

Race is a factor in explaining differences in teen social media use.

Pew provides important measures on shifts in social media, including the continued saturation of Facebook, the decline of MySpace, and the rise of other social media sites (e.g., Twitter, Instagram). When they drill down on race, they find notable differences in adoption. For example, they highlight data that is the source of “black Twitter” narratives: 39% of African-American teens use Twitter compared to 23% of white teens.

Most of the report is dedicated to the increase in teen sharing, but once again, we start to see some race differences. For example, 95% of white social media-using teens share their “real name” on at least one service while 77% of African-American teens do. And while 39% of African-American teens on social media say that they post fake information, only 21% of white teens say they do this.

Teens’ practices on social media also differ by race. For example, on Facebook, 48% of African-American teens befriend celebrities, athletes, or musicians while one 25% of white teen users do.

While media and policy discussions of teens tend to narrate them as an homogenous group, there are serious and significant differences in practices and attitudes among teens. Race is not the only factor, but it is a factor. And Pew’s data on the differences across race highlight this.

Of course, race isn’t actually what’s driving what we see as race differences. The world in which teens live is segregated and shaped by race. Teens are more likely to interact with people of the same race and their norms, practices, and values are shaped by the people around them. So what we’re actually seeing is a manifestation of network effects. And the differences in the Pew report point to black youth’s increased interest in being a part of public life, their heightened distrust of those who hold power over them, and their notable appreciation for pop culture. These differences are by no means new, but what we’re seeing is that social media is reflecting back at us cultural differences shaped by race that are pervasive across America.

Teens are sharing a lot of content, but they’re also quite savvy.

Pew’s report shows an increase in teens’ willingness to share all sorts of demographic, contact, and location data. This is precisely the data that makes privacy advocates anxious. At the same time, their data show that teens are well-aware of privacy settings and have changed the defaults even if they don’t choose to manage the accessibility of each content piece they share. They’re also deleting friends (74%), deleting previous posts (59%), blocking people (58%), deleting comments (53%), detagging themselves (45%), and providing fake info (26%).

My favorite finding of Pew’s is that 58% of teens cloak their messages either through inside jokes or other obscure references, with more older teens (62%) engaging in this practice than younger teens (46%). This is the practice that I’ve seen significantly rise since I first started doing work on teens’ engagement with social media. It’s the source of what Alice Marwick and I describe as “social steganography” in our paper on teen privacy practices.

While adults are often anxious about shared data that might be used by government agencies, advertisers, or evil older men, teens are much more attentive to those who hold immediate power over them – parents, teachers, college admissions officers, army recruiters, etc. To adults, services like Facebook that may seem “private” because you can use privacy tools, but they don’t feel that way to youth who feel like their privacy is invaded on a daily basis. (This, btw, is part of why teens feel like Twitter is more intimate than Facebook. And why you see data like Pew’s that show that teens on Facebook have, on average 300 friends while, on Twitter, they have 79 friends.) Most teens aren’t worried about strangers; they’re worried about getting in trouble.

Over the last few years, I’ve watched as teens have given up on controlling access to content. It’s too hard, too frustrating, and technology simply can’t fix the power issues. Instead, what they’ve been doing is focusing on controlling access to meaning. A comment might look like it means one thing, when in fact it means something quite different. By cloaking their accessible content, teens reclaim power over those who they know who are surveilling them. This practice is still only really emerging en masse, so I was delighted that Pew could put numbers to it. I should note that, as Instagram grows, I’m seeing more and more of this. A picture of a donut may not be about a donut. While adults worry about how teens’ demographic data might be used, teens are becoming much more savvy at finding ways to encode their content and achieve privacy in public.

Anyhow, I have much more to say about Pew’s awesome report, but I wanted to provide a few thoughts and invite y’all to read it. If there is data that you’re curious about or would love me to analyze more explicitly, leave a comment or drop me a note. I’m happy to dive in more deeply on their findings.

How Parents Normalized Teen Password Sharing

In 2005, I started asking teenagers about their password habits. My original set of questions focused on teens’ attitudes about giving their password to their parents, but I quickly became enamored with teens’ stories of sharing passwords with friends and significant others. So I was ecstatic when Pew Internet & American Life Project decided to survey teens about their password sharing habits. Pew found that one third of online 12-17 year olds share their password with a friend or significant other and that almost half of those 14-17 do. I love when data gets reinforced.

Last week, Matt Richtel at the New York Times did a fantastic job of covering one aspect of why teens share passwords: as a show of affection. Indeed, I have lots of fun data that supports Richtel’s narrative — and complicates it. Consider Meixing’s explanation for why she shares her password with her boyfriend:

Meixing, 17, TN: It made me feel safer just because someone was there to help me out and stuff. It made me feel more connected and less lonely. Because I feel like Facebook sometimes it kind of like a lonely sport, I feel, because you’re kind of sitting there and you’re looking at people by yourself. But if someone else knows your password and stuff it just feels better.

For Meixing, sharing her password with her boyfriend is a way of being connected. But it’s precisely these kinds of narratives that have prompted all sorts of horror by adults over the last week since that NYTimes article came out. I can’t count the number of people who have gasped “How could they!?!” at me. For this reason, I feel the need to pick up on an issue that the NYTimes let out.

The idea of teens sharing passwords didn’t come out of thin air. In fact, it was normalized by adults. And not just any adult. This practice is the product of parental online safety norms. In most households, it’s quite common for young children to give their parents their passwords. With elementary and middle school youth, this is often a practical matter: children lose their passwords pretty quickly. Furthermore, most parents reasonably believe that young children should be supervised online. As tweens turn into teens, the narrative shifts. Some parents continue to require passwords be forked over, using explanations like “because I’m your mother.” But many parents use the language of “trust” to explain why teens should share their passwords with them.

There are different ways that parents address the password issue, but they almost always build on the narrative of trust. (Tangent: My favorite strategy is when parents ask children to put passwords into a piggy bank that must be broken for the paper with the password to be retrieved. Such parents often explain that they don’t want to access their teens’ accounts, but they want to have the ability to do so “in case of emergency.” A piggy bank allows a social contract to take a physical form.)

When teens share their passwords with friends or significant others, they regularly employ the language of trust, as Richtel noted in his story. Teens are drawing on experiences they’ve had in the home and shifting them into their peer groups in order to understand how their relationships make sense in a broader context. This shouldn’t be surprising to anyone because this is all-too-common for teen practices. Household norms shape peer norms.

There’s another thread here that’s important. Think back to the days in which you had a locker. If you were anything like me and my friends, you gave out your locker combination to your friends and significant others. There were varied reasons for doing so. You wanted your friends to pick up a book for you when you left early because you were sick. You were involved in a club or team where locker decorating was common. You were hoping that your significant other would leave something special for you. Or – to be completely and inappropriately honest – you left alcohol in your locker and your friends stopped by for a swig. (One of my close friends was expelled for that one.) We shared our locker combinations because they served all sorts of social purposes, from the practical to the risqué.

How are Facebook passwords significantly different than locker combos? Truth be told, for most teenagers, they’re not. Teens share their passwords so that their friends can check their messages for them when they can’t get access to a computer. They share their passwords so their friends can post the cute photos. And they share their passwords because it’s a way of signaling an intimate relationship. Just like with locker combos.

Can password sharing be abused? Of course. I’ve heard countless stories of friends “punking” one another by leveraging password access. And I’ve witnessed all sorts of teen relationship violence where mandatory password sharing is a form of surveillance and abuse. But, for most teens, password sharing is as risky as locker combo sharing. This is why, even though 1/3 of all teens share their passwords, we only hear of scattered horror stories.

I know that this practice strikes adults as seriously peculiar, but it irks me when adults get all judgmental on this teen practice, as though it’s “proof” that teens can’t properly judge how trustworthy a relationship is. First, it’s through these kinds of situations where they learn. Second, adults are dreadful at judging their own relationships (see: divorce rate) so I don’t have a lot of patience for the high and mighty approach. Third, I’m much happier with teens sharing passwords as a form of intimacy than sharing many other things.

There’s no reason to be aghast at teen password sharing. Richtel’s story is dead-on. It’s pretty darn pervasive. But it also makes complete sense given how notions of trust have been constructed for many teens.

(Image Credit: Darwin Bell)