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Teenage privacy online: confronting the web's privacy boundaries

Media headlines scream about lax teen attitudes to privacy. The real story is more complex.

Finding teen privacy scandals on social media is like shooting fish in a barrel. In March, Florida teen Dana Snay bragged about her father winning an age-discrimination lawsuit on Facebook – and broke a confidentiality agreement, costing her dad the $80,000 settlement. In 2013, teens boasted online about bullying a girl to suicide, and were subsequently arrested and charged. Students in Detroit suburb Rochester Hills risked arrest for sending photographs of naked lovers to friends' cellphones.

These are all fodder for media headlines, and may lead to a general perception that younger people are overly casual when it comes to online privacy: oversharing information that should be kept secret. But the real story is quite the reverse. In spite of some horror stories, the majority of kids are more savvy than we might think and, in many cases, understand privacy issues online far more than older people.

Alice Marwick, assistant Professor at Fordham University and an academic affiliate at the Center on Law and Information Policy (CLIP) at Fordham Law School, argues that 'millennials' (the generation after 'Generation X') are more clued-up than many reports give them credit for.

"Young people care about privacy very much," she says. "All you have to do to test out this theory is to look through a teenager's backpack or their room and you'll find that they care a lot."

Quantitative and qualitative studies repeatedly bear this out. 'A New Privacy Paradox: Young people and privacy on social network sites', an April 2014 study carried out by the Global Cyber Security Capacity Centre at the University of Oxford, found marked differences in privacy approaches between younger and older users.

Almost 95 per cent of users aged 14 to 17 had checked or changed their privacy settings on social network systems, compared to an average of just 65 per cent across all age groups. The figure dropped to 77 per cent and 67 per cent for users aged 18 to 24 and 25 to 34 respectively. These younger age groups, all sitting above the broad average, contrasted with figures for older users – just under 55 per cent of those aged between 45 and 54 had checked or changed their settings, falling to 52.7 per cent for 55 to 64-year-olds, and 32.5 per cent for seniors.

Global online privacy

The study interviewed British users but also compared recent surveys among US users (using a Pew survey) and Australian users (using numbers from the Office of the Australian Information Commissioner) by age. It found similar results across these countries: younger users protected their privacy more.

In Germany, which has a history of privacy issues from before the Berlin Wall came down, one might expect a reversal of these attitudes. However, a survey of 1,050 Germans by Big Brother Watch showed a similar age distribution. Fifty-five per cent of 18 to 24-year-olds were concerned over personal privacy online. These numbers dropped steadily to 33 per cent among seniors, with the only uncharacteristic dip in concern among 35 to 44-year-olds, who were the second least-concerned age group of all.

In short, where there was any significant disparity at all in attitudes to online privacy internationally, figures suggest that younger people are more concerned about it than their older counterparts.

These figures change depending on what's being measured, but they still show a healthy level of privacy awareness among younger Internet users. Boston Consulting Group's November 2013 study, 'The Trust Advantage', quizzed Internet users about whether one should be cautious about sharing personal information online. It found that 71 per cent of 18 to 24-year-olds believed so. This is indeed a high proportion of users, but in this case the numbers went up with age. Of those who agreed that more caution is needed: 81 per cent were aged 25 to 34; 84 per cent were in Generation X (35-48); 87 per cent were baby boomers (49-67); and 86 per cent were 68 years old.

Certainly, teens will make mistakes. They're likely to make them a lot more as they grow, points out John Rose, senior partner at the Boston Consulting Group and an author of the report. "It's not surprising that the people who make mistakes are younger people," Rose says. "And the timeframe between the mistake and the impact is getting shorter." But just because news outlets report major mistakes loudly and quickly doesn't make them statistically significant.

Privacy from whom?

Part of the problem in analysing attitudes to privacy involves its definition. Older users may perceive privacy as protecting personal data from outside intrusion, but there are signs that younger people have notions of the idea.

Marwick conducted a study on teen attitudes to privacy with Danah Boyd, principal researcher at Microsoft Research and a research assistant professor in media, culture, and communication at New York University. They interviewed 163 young people across 20 US states for the paper 'Social Privacy in Networked Publics: Teens' Attitudes, Practices and Strategies'. One thing came up repeatedly: privacy for teenagers is about control over their personal space.

"Some young people are quite cautious, but the type of privacy that they're worried about isn't privacy from government, marketers, spam or phishers," she explains. "It's privacy from parents, teachers and employers."

Teens repeatedly reported that privacy revolved around the ability to control a social situation and their own role within it. Parents would force them to be friends on Facebook as a condition of use, for example, or look through their web logs, or their rooms, without permission. In one case, parents even took to posting embarrassing pictures of themselves on their child's Facebook page as punishment for talking back.

This points to a different approach to privacy among teens. They appear more concerned about their ability to control social boundaries and who has the right to cross them. The ability to discuss things with friends without parental oversight, then, becomes more important than access to their bank account details, for example.

"Teenagers aren't going to worry about being defrauded from their bank accounts because they may not even have any," argues Irina Raicu, Internet ethics programme manager at the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics at Santa Clara University.

This focus on social boundaries as the basis for privacy makes sense, especially when you think about what young people go through during and after their teenage years.

Those privacy concerns may shift, even inside the same age group. The Center on Law and Information Policy's Marwick sees this in attitudes to privacy among young Internet users from different socio-economic class. In her studies she has identified three broad demographics among young users, all of which had different attitudes and motivators when it came to online privacy.

The young demographic where privacy does take a hit is among lower-middle-class and working-class users, who don't plan on going to college and have no immediate career aspirations. "They don't see a reason why they shouldn't put stuff online, because the benefits that they get through sharing in the present, such as the social status benefits, are more important than any long-term benefit that they might get," she says.

Other groups, however, are more conscientious, for different reasons. Those from relatively well-off middle-class families will often have been prepared for college admissions and have more to lose. They are, in many ways, just as clued-up as older users, if not more so. This group usually carefully edits and polishes what it puts online to get across the right impression to potential colleges or employers.

Of 18 college students aged 18 to 21 from the higher socio-economic group, Marwick found that 15 described themselves as having a 'personal brand' online. "It's amazing to me how quickly they have developed the idea of having a clean, managed image online," she says.

Young Internet users from the other end of the spectrum can be equally private, but for different reasons to their wealthier peers, she says. Millennials from families that are more likely to be involved with the social services system are often very protective of their privacy because they don't want to be noticed for the wrong reasons, Marwick explains.

This group may feel more scrutinised, perhaps because of tussles with the law or because the family is receiving social service benefits. "It's not necessarily about putting a positive forward," she explains. "It's about not putting a negative image forward."

How teens stay private

Some teenagers among those more vulnerable groups have resorted to extreme measures to protect themselves. Marwick's research found two girls, very distrusting of adults, who regularly had to deal with state authorities. One of them chose to deactivate her account after every session so that neither adult nor state actors could look at it, effectively turning it into a purely synchronous communication tool for her to reach her most trusted circle.

Her friend would post messages using her own account but would delete them shortly after the intended recipients had read them, leaving no content that could be used against her later.

Other less extreme measures involved multi-channel communications and compartmentalisation, says Santa Clara University's Raicu.

"They jump to new services just to get away from the old ones that maybe their elders are aware of," Raicu says. "So, young people went to Instagram and Snapchat before everybody did. And it wasn't just so that they can send sexy pictures to each other."

Young people will also use these different services to delineate different groups of friends, rather than just to dodge adult surveillance.

A collection of such tools is opening up, often with privacy and/or anonymity at their heart. Yik Yak, a mobile app for anonymous posts, has taken off in colleges, claims Tyler Droll, one of the app's co-founders. "It started for humour, but then we quickly realised just how powerful this communication network is. They won't get their privacy invaded when talking to strangers," he says. Other apps include Whisper and Secret.

In addition to these technology-based methods for retaining some control over their lives, youngsters also play with the content of their posts to keep their privacy. One common approach is steganography: embedding one message in another kind of content.

To hide their communications, teens do not need do anything as technologically advanced as encrypting messages in pictures. At its simplest they can simply use 'in' jokes to communicate with each other which requires no technology. Similar techniques have been used throughout history, in legitimate and illicit circles. Everyone from TSA workers through to gangs have their own slang, designed to limit knowledge purely to insiders. Beggars and vagrants often used slang in Europe (known as thieves' cant) to disguise their actions and intentions.

These less obvious ways of preserving privacy in a modern online world are a reaction to poor design in many online communication systems, which aren't created to cope with younger peoples' lifestyles. Underpinning this is a concept that Marwick and Grant Blank, co-author of 'The New Privacy Paradox', call "context collapse".

Everyone conducts different communications in different contexts. Adults speak to their banks, for example, in a different context from their drinking buddies, which in turn involves different kinds of communication from, say, a conversation with their mothers. But adults understand these different contexts, in part because they're well defined and they have a long life experience of them.

Teens find it tougher for two reasons. "Young people are separating themselves from parents and school and joining the workforce," explains Blank. "A lot of things in their lives are changing, and they're entering new social circles that may have different norms. This is a classic social situation. Where you're in a new setting, you become more sensitive to things that people in that setting take for granted."

Social media in a new context

Young people are constantly learning to navigate new norms of privacy in these emerging and shifting social contexts. A 14-year-old may be concerned about whether her mother reads her Facebook posts to her boyfriend. A 17-year-old might worry about what potential employers think of party photos. And a 19-year-old may grapple with what is appropriate to post about her working day.

In many cases, these will be contexts that they have never experienced before. They are already struggling with managing communications in these new contexts, but they're also doing it on social networks, which, for the most part, aren't designed to support them. Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg explicitly disavowed the notion of privacy in 2010, arguing privacy was no longer a social norm.

"People have really gotten comfortable not only sharing more information and different kinds, but more openly and with more people," he said at the Crunchie awards in January that year. "That social norm is just something that has evolved over time."

Google's Google+ social network made it easier for people to delineate their posts into different circles of people, but it still forced people to use their real names for their identities as it built up its user base.

This lack of concern for privacy on popular websites is a significant challenge for teens and millennials, most of whom have little choice but to use them if they want to communicate with their peer groups. But they are possibly taking on the challenge for the rest of us.

"Teens are very active users because they're at that very social phase," Raicu points out. "They're often early adopters of new technologies, testing it while trying to navigate complicated life changes. They're at the frontier." 

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