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Teens Care About Online Privacy—Just Not the Same Way You Do

• May 22, 2013 • 4:00 AM

(PHOTO: PAN XUNBIN / SHUTTERSTOCK)

Why do teenagers behave the way that they do online, sharing personal information with just about anybody who wants it? Look to the privacy paradox.

The latest round of research on teenagers and digital privacy is out, this time in the form of a joint study by the Pew Research Center and the Berkman Center for Internet Society. The results of the study are similar to the results of past studies on youth and the Internet: teens are sharing more information about themselves. Interestingly, however, the report indicates that teens are also taking “a variety of technical and non-technical steps to manage the privacy of that information.”

Here’s how the research breaks down. The joint paper found that teenagers are sharing more and more personal information online: 91 percent of teenagers post at least one photo of themselves (up from 79 percent in 2006), while 71 percent post their school name (up from 49 percent), 53 percent post their email address (up from 29 percent), and 20 percent post their cell phone number (up from two percent). At the same time, teenagers are more and more cautious as to who sees this information: about 60 percent of teen Facebook users set their profiles to private (friends only), and most report high levels of confidence in their ability to manage their settings, with 56 percent of users noting that it’s “not difficult at all” to set privacy controls (while only eight percent say it’s “somewhat difficult”).

The data suggest that teens care less about data privacy and more about more socially oriented forms of privacy, those designed to protect the integrity of a community.

Today’s teenagers are, in the eyes of Pew, walking contradictions, increasingly open despite their understanding of privacy risks (and mastery of the tools needed to combat them). But this data isn’t necessarily new or groundbreaking or indicative of some strange breed of crazy kids with their rock and roll and YouFace and twittering; it’s more evidence of the “privacy paradox” of online life, a concept first advanced by Susan Barnes in a 2006 entry in First Monday, a peer-reviewed journal of the Internet. “In America, we live in a paradoxical world of privacy,” writes Barnes. “On one hand, teenagers reveal their intimate thoughts and behaviors online and, on the other hand, government agencies and marketers are collecting personal data about us…. Many government records have been turned into digital archives that can be searched through the Internet. Every time we use a shopping card, a retail store collects data about our consumer spending habits.”

It didn’t take a highly-public hacking or a magazine cover story on Facebook’s privacy issues to spur teens to use lock down their profiles. Researchers danah m. boyd and Nicole B. Ellison noted in the Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication that teenagers have always been aware of potential privacy threats online and that many are proactive about taking steps to minimize certain potential risks while falling prey to the same online behaviors as many adults: “In another study examining security issues and SNSs, Jagatic, Johnson, Jakobsson, and Menczer (2007) used freely accessible profile data from SNSs to craft a ‘phishing’ scheme that appeared to originate from a friend on the network; their targets were much more likely to give away information to this ‘friend; than to a perceived stranger.”

In a 2007 study, Pew found that 55 percent of online teens have profiles, 66 percent of whom report that their profile is not visible to all Internet users. Of the teens with completely open profiles, 46 percent reported including at least some false information.

So what explains the privacy paradox? Teens care about privacy in a social context, not a big data context. That teens are fleeing Facebook is illustrative of the phenomenon: Pew found in focus group discussions that teens showed irritation for the increasing adult presence, excessive sharing, and stressful “drama” of the massive social network. Said one respondent: “I have two [Facebook accounts]: one for my family, one for my friends.”

The Pew data suggest that teens care less about data privacy and more about more socially oriented forms of privacy, those designed to protect the integrity of a community. Pew found that teen social media users do not express a high level of concern about third-party access to their data; just nine percent say they are “very” concerned. Let’s think about the data issues that the average non-teen or adult faces: concerns over whether personal information is used without our consent (i.e. your face showing up in a Facebook banner advertisement), financial damage (namely fraud through any number of third-party services), losing one’s personal data through hacking, or reputation management. For a teenager who is financially (and likely technologically) dependent on their family, issues like whether their personal data is used in Facebook ads (find me a 16-year-old who is interested in banner ads and didn’t just sell their start-up to Yahoo!) and the looming threat of hackers are secondary concerns to the social life in which school and friends are inexorably tied up with. In fact, it’s mainly parents who care about what data their kids share: 81 percent of parents surveyed by Pew say they are “somewhat” or “very” concerned about how much information advertisers can learn about their children’s behavior online.

This should seem obvious. What else could be more natural for a teenager—that openness is valued, but only in a strictly contained ecosystem, and a lack of data privacy is regarded as inconsequential? This appears to be nothing more than a reflection of the social life of a particular age group: financial and commercial relationships (how much money I have and where I get it, what my grades are, what I’m doing from hour to hour) are subsumed in the context of working parents while teenagers are dependents, and social relationships are the primary focus of daily life—so long as select parts are kept secret from mom and dad. That this distinct phenomenon of social life has transferred to attitudes about online communication should come as no surprise: Ellison, Charles Steinfield, and Cliff Lampe established in a Computer-Mediated Communication article that social networks are used to maintain existing offline relationships or solidify offline connections as opposed to meeting new people.

But there is evidence in Pew’s latest data set that suggests the privacy paradox could be fading, primarily with regard to reputation management. Pew notes that more than half of online teens (57 percent) say they have decided not to post something online because they were concerned it would reflect badly on them in the future, and other teen social media users are more likely than other teens who do not use social media to refrain from sharing content due to reputational concerns (61 percent vs. 39 percent). While this isn’t the same as having personal information used to target ads, it indicates an increasing awareness among teens online that their privacy concerns may need to expand to encompass how their online actions will resonate beyond the confines of the strange social ecosystem of childhood.

Jared Keller
Jared Keller is a journalist and social media specialist living in New York. His writing has appeared in The Atlantic, Bloomberg Businessweek, National Journal, Outside, Al Jazeera America, and The Verge.

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