As Emily Bazelon reported here on Thursday, Facebook has just rolled out a new threat to the online lives of teenagers: “For the first time, 13- to 17-year-olds have the option of making everything they post on the site public,” she writes. (Previously, teens were only authorized to post their information to “friends of friends.”) Social media companies like Facebook are undoubtedly eager to expose teen lives to the world so that they might monetize them. But despite widespread fear about the reputation-ruining consequences of oversharing millennials, many young Internet users don’t actually crave the type of Internet freedom Facebook has afforded them. As Bazelon put it: “In my reporting on young people and social media, I haven’t run into any teenagers lobbying to be ‘heard’ more on Facebook. They are plenty heard already.”
Actually, it’s increasingly evident that millennials are more concerned about their online privacy than older generations of Internet users are. The market research firm Harris Interactive recently surveyed 2,022 American adults on their online privacy habits on behalf of Ask.com. It found that the youngest Internet users are the most likely to have “conducted an online search they wish to keep private from others.” Seventy-eight percent of users aged 18-34 expressed a wish for privacy, compared to 59 percent of users 35 and up. The results conform to a recent report by the Pew Internet and American Life project, which found that the youngest social media users surveyed (those aged 18 to 29) are more likely to have cleared their browser histories, deleted or edited past social media postings, set their browsers to disable cookies, declined to use a website that required them to go by their real name, and employed a temporary username or email address to hide their identity online. A 2007 Pew report found that among teenagers who use the Internet, only 6 percent “post their first and last names on publicly-accessible profiles.”
These findings match up with some anecdotal evidence, too. Ars Technica editor-at-large Jacqui Cheng wrote on Medium last month about the young students she’s worked with in Chicago schools who are even better versed in privacy options than adult techies are. The teenagers “were extremely savvy with privacy on social media, sometimes to the point of bafflement,” Cheng wrote. One intriguing teen strategy: “Many teens ‘delete’ their Facebook accounts altogether every time the rest of us would just log out,” Cheng writes. “They’re taking advantage of the fact that Facebook actually keeps much of your account information on its servers when you decide to ‘leave’ the service, allowing them to stay under the radar from a nosy friend, parent, or public searches while they’re not online. Their photos disappear and their status updates go on the down-low—at least until the next time they log back in by re-activating their accounts.” These kids were also “the ones asking me why any person with a brain would let their phone attach a GPS location to a photograph’s EXIF file. (Public service announcement to The Olds™: You can turn that off.)”
Cheng’s experience may come as a relief to some parents. But for others, it will only stoke fears. From the perspective of parents, teen privacy is a double-edged sword. On the one hand, parents seek to protect minors from oversharing information that might damage their reputations or make them vulnerable to abuse. On the other, parents want to know what their kids are doing when they’re out of the house (or tucked in at night). In a related online poll that culled data from 2,286 adults and 1,217 young people ages 8-18, Harris Interactive found that among American minors with cellphones, 43 percent of users say their parents “occasionally” check their smartphone. More parents do it without their kids’ knowledge, bringing the total number of snooping parents to 57 percent. Two out of 10 young smartphone users say their parents “occasionally use smartphones to track their location.” About a quarter say they’ve agreed to a parental contract that requires them to follow certain rules to keep phone privileges; 19 percent follow a phone curfew. Two in 10 users aged 8-12 said that their parents forbid them from using password protections on their phones.
This parental impulse to monitor kids’ online activity may actually incentivize teenagers to learn new ways to keep their postings hidden from the wider world. In the Ask.com poll, 66 percent of Internet users aged 18-34 who wanted to keep their search results private said that they hoped to hide them specifically from “adult members of their family.” Nosy parents can really help their kids by responding with understanding and respect when they do stumble upon potentially concerning information. “Contrary to popular belief among adults, these teenagers are not oblivious to privacy settings and do care a good amount about who can see what online. If anything, most of them have consciously chosen what they want to show to me and the rest of the world through social media,” Cheng writes. “What they’re telling us is what their lives are like when they’re not sitting in class, obediently scribbling notes or quietly falling asleep in the back. They’re telling us what their struggles are and, perhaps indirectly, what they could use help with in order to make it in one piece to adulthood. But is anyone listening?”