About teens, Internet and Privacy: The Challenges of Identity in the Digital Era

Why privacy is an important issue for young people who experiment with Internet and social media.

The girl Lucille Kimbrell found a quiet place to practice writing, 1937.

The girl Lucille Kimbrell found a quiet place to practice writing, 1937. Source: Kheel Center

Teenagers use the internet as a space for leisure, interaction, and construction of personal identity. They rarely stop to wonder about the source and destination of the information that flows through this infinite and seeming volatile network. Online activity opens up relational spaces and accepts topics that would be unthinkable in the face-to-face world. Defining the private sphere and the capacity to control the information that people disclose about themselves are challenges that have to be explained, understood, and tackled today by agents involved in education. This post explores why privacy is an important issue for young people who experiment with in digital eternity with an open heart.

The communication revolution has only just begun. Everyone, young and old, has jumped on the bandwagon of modern technology because it promises to make life easier, more pleasant, and more fun. But we still have to understand what it is, how it works, and what we lose in exchange. The availability of “free” e-mail accounts or profiles disrupts the classic model of financial transactions. Now we’re seeing that when we don’t pay for a service, what we give up in exchange are our personal data. Our names, our addresses, our tastes, our contacts, our medical history, the places we went yesterday, and the books we’d like to buy.  Would you accept a loaf of bread in exchange for the contacts or photos in our phones? Defintely not, but in fact we do something similar every time we download a free app. As a society, we are accepting the constant invasion of our most personal and sensitive dimension, without considering the consequences.

According to a study by the Pew Research Centre 90% of teenagers report going online at least once a day, and a quarter are “almost constantly” online. The internet is a tool, a medium, and a showcase, and young people play a dual role as consumers and producers of information. Against this background, defining the private sphere in the 21st century – or, in other words, distinguishing between the public and private spheres – becomes a complex exercise. On one hand, there is physical privacy and identity in the offline world, but on top of that there is online privacy and the problem of managing the “digital footprint”. With the advent of smartphones and permanent connection, young people require accompaniment and guidance for managing these multiple identities and understanding the codes of two worlds. Privacy is something that we appreciate when it is not there and, as Cory Doctorow said in this CCCB interview, the consequences of the loss of privacy are not immediate.

Below we explore five key factors for understanding why digital privacy is important for 21st century teenagers.

Factor #1 – A laboratory for identity

Social networks are a new, accessible showcase where teenagers can present and represent themselves. Almost 80% of teenagers have a personal profile on some social network (FAD, 2015). Facebook, twitter, and other platforms are part of their everyday lives. The online environment encourages superficiality and invites users to generate content spontaneously and impulsively. Posts are “rewarded” or “fail” according to how, when, and how many other users respond to them. The number of “thumbs ups” is a new way of measuring popularity, and growing up in the midst of this voracious medium could lead to crises that have to be tackled through responsible use and conscious guidance.

Factor #2 – The omnipresent showcase

There is an unprecedented amount of information available about everybody. It is much easier to control, compare, and track yourself and others in a space where practically everything is done in view of everybody else. Sociologists Juan Carlos Ballesteros and Ignacio Megías report that young people claim that their private spaces have largely been sacrificed, and that even strangers can access a lot of information about them. Having a profile on social media does not automatically lead to becoming a victim of cyber-harassment by strangers, it is not a risk factor per se.  The risk lies in how social networks are used: providing too much personal information and being inclined to communicate with strangers double the risk, as this 2013 article by Anirban Sengupta and Anoshua Chaudhuri explains.

In reality, teenagers are becoming increasingly aware and wary about their space, and teenage girls are particularly critical. It is important to consciously think about the connection between what the internet makes possible and how it is detrimental to privacy. But in a context bereft of alternatives, the only options are non-participation (which means missing out on the opportunities it offer) or indiscriminate use (ignoring the cost of these opportunities).

Factor #3 – Live, for everybody

Another significant new development is the fact that social networks blur the traditional boundaries between sender and receiver. In the case of Facebook walls, for example, each user has an average of 130 “friends”, who usually include contacts from the family circle, school, and other everyday spaces. All of these contacts potential receive any message that is posted. Studies show that we use social media based on the mechanism of imagined audiences: when we produce messages we only think about the people from our network who could have some kind of interest or link to them, not everybody on the list of contacts. It is what privacy experts call the “threat model”.

This study shows that being aware of the diversity of the audience tends to make users think more strategically when posting comments or status updates. For example, looking at profile pictures from the set of people who will be able to see a post tends to have a dissuasive effect. In the case of teenagers, the “enemy” could be their parents and relatives, and many young people develop protection strategies (such as changing privacy settings). But we need to broaden the debate because the imagined audiences are neither explicit nor synchronic: they potentially – and increasingly – include bosses, insurers, universities, and marketing companies, to name a few, who are willing to use this information to their advantage.

Factor #4 – Privacy

So far we have focused on online identity that teenagers actively project. But on social media, they can no longer control the information pertaining to them, given that other users can post photographs, comments, and all kinds of references to them, so that privacy becomes a right that requires the complicity of collective responsibility. In other words, preserving our privacy depends on us to a small extent, on our online connections to a greater extent, and on the macro level, it depends on being able to place limits on irresponsible innovation as a society.

Factor #5 – The internet that knows everything and never forgets

But at a time when social media are a testing ground in which teenagers tend to overexpose themselves, turning their profiles into a detailed log of their lives, an inopportune comment or photograph can end up costing them a job or access to institutions, or damaging their reputations. It is becoming common practice to “google” people’s names before hiring them, or as soon as they appear in the media. There are more and more stories of people getting fired or careers cut short because of comments or content posted on social media. And these posts, which are taken out of context and often obsolete, seem to carry more weight than the person in question admitting that it was a mistake, apologising, or simply admitting to teenage shenanigans that they would not repeat. What’s more, this is a network that never forgets. And even if somebody deletes their content, the online record remains, and so do the comments of other users who have captured or saved the content.

The importance of teaching responsible use

The internet, and particularly social media, is an interactive platform where teenagers deposit a great deal of information about themselves without really thinking or focusing on what they are doing. The four first factors explain how the online environment tends to multiply and escalate situations that have always existed. The big difference, and probably the most urgent lesson to be learnt, is the fact that the internet is a permanent record, and the companies behind it use a business model based on the monetization of the personal data of users. The threats to privacy involved in using the internet and social media are not very tangible and tend to be invisible.

Teaching and educating teenagers in the 21st century entails helping them to understand and interact with the online world. Even if the tools available are still few and limited, it is essential to raise the awareness of the educational community as a whole, and to discuss these issues in the classroom. The individual and collective future of our young people, insofar as reclaiming privacy as a fundamental right, depends on it.

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About teens, Internet and Privacy: The Challenges of Identity in the Digital Era