Gina, 15, stood in front of a Starbucks in a mall in Asheville, N.C. In a tank top, shorts, and flip-flops, she talked about social media. She Snapchats, and uses Vine and Facebook, but doesn’t Tweet. She cares a lot about personal privacy, especially from people she’s never met—and her mom.
For a long time, experts assumed that teens didn’t care about privacy, since they grew up with social media. But a recent Pew Research report found that teens protect their privacy, but in different ways than their parents do.
Researchers found that 60 percent of youth set their social networking profiles to private and were confident about keeping control of those settings. Half of the group said they also deleted previous posts, removed comments from others, untagged photos of themselves, and cloaked messages with inside jokes that only close friends would understand.
Gina, for instance, will share an obscure line of a song with a friend so nobody else (like her mom) gets the joke. And she thinks some things should stay entirely private, especially if a parent or future employer is looking for information: “Like there are some boundaries. … I wouldn’t really like [teachers] in my private life.”
Danah Boyd, a senior researcher at Microsoft Research, called writing with inside jokes “social steganography,” a term for the hidden messages that ancient Greeks used. But young people don’t write in code because they fear the government or large organizations: “Teens are much more attentive to those who hold immediate power over them—parents, teachers, college admissions officers, army recruiters, etc.,” Boyd wrote in an online blog post about the Pew findings.
Teens are also editing their online lives—and adding more privacy measures—as they enter the college and work worlds, said Mary Madden, a senior researcher at the Pew Internet & American Life Project.
Mandi Grandjean, a recent graduate of Miami University in Ohio, said she’s fine with secret government surveillance “with congressional oversight.” But even she believes it’s different when it comes to an employer, or even a coach. As an athlete at Miami, she agreed to have her social networking accounts—even private ones—monitored by her coaches. One time, when she tweeted something on her locked Twitter account at midnight, her coach texted her shortly after: “Go to bed.”
“I think there’s a line,” Grandjean said. “It puts me on edge. … It’s a little too close for comfort.”
Privacy concerns explain, in part, why teens are moving to more creative and visually driven sites, such as Instagram and Snapchat.
Gina uses Snapchat and Vine because few adults have profiles on those sites. She has learned not to share her profile with anyone she doesn’t know: “Because that’s really dangerous and creepy and there’s creepy people in the world.”