Contrary to stereotypes, many young people are acutely concerned about online privacy, spending significant time managing how they present themselves on social media and worrying about what happens to the digital trails they leave.
That’s the takeaway from new research presented last month at the annual conference of the American Educational Research Association by Claire Fontaine of the Data & Society Institute.
As part of a small study, Fontaine and colleagues interviewed 28 teenagers and young adults, ranging from 16 to 26 years old. All were low-income New York City residents, all owned a smartphone or similar mobile device, and all regularly used at least one social-media platform.
How anxious were these young people about navigating the online world?
“It’s like getting a tattoo every time you go on the internet,” said one young woman in the study.
In an interview, Fontaine talked about the implications her research has for K-12 schools—including the problems associated with treating privacy primarily as a matter of personal responsibility and rushing to embrace technology-related initiatives such as 1-to-1 computing, personalized learning, and computer science education.
This transcript of the conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
There’s a perception out there that young people don’t care about privacy. Is that what you found?
Across the board, the young people we spoke to were deeply concerned about privacy and had a great appetite for adult guidance.
Some had a vague, ambient sense that mobile devices and social-media platforms were not safe, secure spaces. Other young people were intimately aware of the vulnerabilities in these systems. But the common thread was deep concern about issues of privacy and security and a sense of vulnerability and wanting more adult guidance than they had experienced.
You describe online privacy violations as “inevitable and widespread.” Why?
Unless you are going to great lengths to customize your phone, it is by default tracking your movements through time and space. It is sending to companies information on where you live, places you frequent, the grocery stores you use. Many apps that you download, depending on their settings and terms of service, may be transmitting the same types of information and selling it on to third parties.
Parents, teachers, and young people should be aware that the big consumer-tech platforms are also creating massive dossiers on them.
Did the young people in your study understand that?
There was greater awareness of interpersonal, rather than structural, types of threats.
Most of the anxiety they felt was around whether they were getting into stressful interactions with people they might see in the street or in the hallway, because of what they were posting online. Or they were asking, “Why are my parents posting to my Facebook page?” or “Oh my goodness, I wasn’t thinking when I started my Instagram account when I was 12 that those pictures would be findable when I was applying to colleges.”
How does that affect young people?
From a youth-development perspective, adolescence is supposed to be a period when you try on different identities and see what fits. My question is whether the internet is a hostile space for that.
During his testimony before Congress, for example, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg emphasized that, ostensibly, users do have control over what content they post and who gets to see what. But the process of figuring that out is very laborious. There’s also an assumption within the platform that anything you put up is public across all contexts, and if you’d like to change that, the onus is on you.
One of your big conclusions is that young people have to do a lot of “invisible work” to navigate all this. What does that look like?
It’s usually done retrospectively, when they’ve realized there is some information they don’t want to be out there. Then all of a sudden, they’re trying to remember what information they used to set up an account or how to get into old accounts and clean them up. It’s very reactive, driven by a perceived need to scrub something that is potentially dangerous.
I think it feels very alienating for them. In some of the interviews, there were a lot of statements alluding to a feeling of self-consciousness and hyper-self-awareness that almost created a form of paralysis.
Other people spent a lot of energy creating a curated online version of themselves, a virtual version of themselves that would be palatable to a general audience.
Isn’t that just being a responsible digital citizen?
A 12-year-old shouldn’t have to present herself as an employable white-collar worker when she goes on to social media for the first time in middle school. I think that’s the project of adulthood, not adolescence. We’re seeing the adultification of teenage-hood.
What are the downsides of framing online privacy as solely a matter of personal responsibility?
No amount of personal responsibility is going to secure your privacy and security online. The idea that it’s possible to do so is a lie.
What message would you want to send to K-12 educators, administrators, and policymakers?
I think that schools have a responsibility to be transparent with students and parents about the trade-offs associated with the technologies they use. There may be more efficient communications, for example, but that may come with creating a record of all those communications that schools can’t control.
Young people should have a genuine ability to opt out.
And unless we engage with these invisible emotional dimensions, these fears and anxieties that young people have about online participation, we may run into obstacles we can’t otherwise explain.
A version of this article appeared in the May 16, 2018 edition of Education Week as Teens Express Worries About Online Privacy