Three things adults need to know about teens, Facebook and privacy

Martin Belam by Martin Belam, 8 February 2012

Last week at news:rewired I was talking about the Guardian’s Facebook app. During the Q&A after my talk, the topic of privacy cropped up several times, especially with regard to younger people using the Facebook platform. Here are three important things that I think adults should know about when they are discussing privacy amongst teenagers.

Our idea of privacy is not their idea of privacy

Your view of what is private as an adult is very different from the view of a child. Danah Boyd made this point back in 2010.

“Kids have always cared about privacy, it's just that their notions of privacy look very different than adult notions. As adults, by and large, we think of the home as a very private space ... for young people it’s not a private space. They have no control over who comes in and out of their room, or who comes in and out of their house. As a result, the online world feels more private because it feels like it has more control.”

Kids don’t get to choose holiday destinations, or when they have to go to a family gathering and miss a night out with their friends. Having a first shave, buying a first bra - even some of the most intimate changes that happen to them as they go through puberty will most likely not be completely private from their family.

It may seem extraordinary to us that teenagers think nothing much of posting pictures of themselves up to mischief on the public internet, but they have chosen to share that material, and they have chosen who their friends are online. After years of not being able to control their own bedtime, any privacy setting at all represents a new type of privacy for them.

Danah elaborates on this issue in a longer interview which is worth reading.

Password sharing is an act of trust, not a security breach

As adults it is drilled into us that we should be using a different, strong, secure password for every service. Meanwhile, Danah Boyd tells us “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.”

For teenagers, sharing a Facebook password is one of the most intimate things you can do. As this piece in the New York Times puts it: “They say they know such digital entanglements are risky, because a souring relationship can lead to people using online secrets against each other. But that, they say, is part of what makes the symbolism of the shared password so powerful.”

Where would they get such an idea? Why, from the adults they grew up with of course. Danah Boyd again:

“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.”

This is just the background radiation of their lives

What looks from an adult perspective like radical technological change is just the background radiation of a young person’s life. No young person in the UK thinks there is anything remarkable at all about owning a colour television or walking around with a mobile phone - but I can dimly recall my parents renting a black & white television, and went through all of my school and university years relying on my parent’s fixed line phone as my communications device.

You learn to cope and make behavioural norms out of the technology available to you. Personally I find the idea that the peer pressure of being a teen would follow you home from school onto your computer and be constantly in your pocket horrifying. Yet, if Facebook had been around, maybe I would have actually had a wider support network, as the geeky indie kids from my neighbourhood would have had a much stronger bond of communication across schools and school year boundaries.

Any schoolkid now just lives with the fact that they are always in touch. Not just to bully each other or send sexy messages - although that makes all the headlines that adults seem to want to write. They can also use it to help with homework, and personal problems, and upheaval at home.

Getting a Facebook account is now almost a rite of passage of becoming 13.

And any 13 year old who signs up to Facebook today will never remember an internet without frictionless sharing apps.

Facebook: The rise and rise of a social media giant
Edited by Martin Belam
In February 2004, whilst at Harvard, Mark Zuckerberg and friends created “The Facebook”. What started as just a website for one university has become one of the dominant forces on the internet in the early 21st century. The simple idea of connecting people together into networks of friends sharing their personal details has made Mark Zuckerberg, on paper at least, one of the wealthiest men on the planet. This is the story of the rise and rise of Facebook, as told in six years of original journalism, writing and comment in the pages of the Guardian and the Observer.
Facebook: The rise and rise of a social media giant” - £2.56 for Kindle & £2.99 for iBooks.

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