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The World is Watching: Teens and Online Privacy

Tips on helping teens navigate the world of Facebook, Twitter and other social media sites sensibly and safely

Published on: November 25, 2014

Generations of teenagers have used cutting-edge tech to communicate. Ferris Bueller’s Day Off would not have been Ferris Bueller without the vital bedroom phones; Saved by the Bell aired in the era of oversize cell phones. Today’s teens interact via social media. Conversations about homework and relationships remain the same, but now the whole world can potentially eavesdrop on kids as they grow up online.

In recent years, parents have been grappling with how to teach digital literacy — how to talk to our kids about privacy and sharing. Now, experts are reminding us that listening to how kids themselves think about their social-media-driven world is critical, too.

“I don’t like sharing too much, but I’m kind of forced to use social media because all my friends do,” says college student Katy Yu, who joined Facebook at 16. Twitter and Snapchat followed. “There is constant pressure to post about fun things. If you don’t, it means you have no friends and no life.”

A study published this fall in the Journal of Adolescent Health found that adolescent
attitudes about online privacy are changing. Two groups of older female adolescents were interviewed in 2009 and 2012. Both groups agreed that sharing info such as home addresses is dangerous. However, priorities had shifted by 2012.

“It was more passé to talk about security in 2012. The more important topic became reputation management and how to handle your personal brand,” says Megan Moreno, M.D., associate professor of pediatrics at the University of Washington, member of Seattle Children’s Hospital’s Adolescent Medicine program and the study’s lead author.

The study concluded that many teens inherently distrust privacy settings and instead rely on self-discretion. The shift in awareness could indicate a need for new ways of discussing privacy concerns with adolescents.

Protecting your image

Yu, 21, recently deleted all her precollege Facebook posts. The purge was inspired by a friend who was dogged by negative comments about an outdated, unflattering — albeit benign — personal photo. Yu is increasingly alert about protecting both her personal privacy and professional prospects.

“Privacy settings are complicated and hard to track, even for a digital native [those who grew up using social media] like me,” Yu says. “I don’t worry much about things like stalkers, but do worry about what impression I give people, especially future employers. So, I personally control what I put on social media.”

The study’s findings echo Yu’s sentiments. In 2009, adolescents reported believing that universities and employers could circumvent security settings. Many researchers, including Moreno, initially considered such opinions to be urban myths.

“That’s what makes the 2012 data so compelling. It’s been revealed in the past year (NSA  surveillance) that there really isn’t such a thing as privacy in social media,” Moreno says. “It’s interesting that the teens were right.”

For some young people, like Yu, surveillance reinforces the need for personal discretion. However, experts caution that general distrust can also backfire.

“There is a flip side. If teens continually hear the message that businesses and institutions can access social networking sites no matter what, they can end up thinking there’s no point in even trying [to protect privacy],” says Yolanda Evans, M.D., assistant professor of pediatrics at Seattle Children’s.

Having ‘the talk’

Facebook was incredibly popular when 17-year-old Tanner Simon was in middle school. He lobbied his parents for months to join, but they deferred until he was 13.

They talked a lot about what they expected. I shouldn’t post anything I wouldn’t want a future college or job seeing,” Simon says. “They repeated it so much that it was really in my head before I ever got a Facebook account.”

Simon has moved on to Twitter and Instagram, but the same lessons apply.

Reinforcing basic security with kids is always valuable — don’t post addresses, phone numbers or revealing photos. However, since many teens already grasp those concepts, it may be time to broaden the privacy discussion.

“The larger part of the conversation is just having the conversation itself,” says Mike Donlin, program supervisor for the School Safety Center, a division of the State of Washington’s Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction. “There are at least 20–25 social media sites, and what’s popular is always changing. Focus on the philosophy behind using these sites so it applies to all of them.”

In 2013, Moreno cowrote a study about Internet safety education that found that half of adolescents reported learning about online safety from peers.

“Adolescents are a technologically adept population, but they’re not necessarily experts in safety,” Moreno says. “Adults have more expertise and experience to help teens understand why privacy is important and how the online and offline worlds overlap.”

That often requires a working knowledge of the sites themselves. Moreno advises enlisting teens to be guides. Parents can ask technical questions, solicit their children’s opinions and open a dialogue. In an often overlooked but critical lesson, adults need to also be role models for positive online decision-making.

“We hear from teens that they’re often embarrassed by how their parents use social media. The adults are posting photos of themselves drinking or talking about high school exes,” Moreno says. “Parents shouldn’t be acting like teens themselves.”

Evans offers perhaps one of the best and simplest pieces of advice for navigating online privacy:

“My general rule of thumb is, would I be OK with my 93-year-old grandmother reading my post? If I hesitate, then I don’t post it.”

Tips for parents

Set guidelines in advance: The American Academy of Pediatrics suggests creating a family media use plan. Recommendations are available at Healthy Children

For both younger and older kids, Common Sense Media offers information on everything from handling social media to reviews and descriptions of the latest sites and apps.

Seattle Children’s Social Media & Adolescent Health Research Team (SMAHRT) provides up-to-date information, studies and resources covering online topics such as privacy.

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