What parents just don’t understand about online privacy

Not long ago, police and school officials in Old Saybrook, Conn., held a high school assembly on Internet safety. The purpose of the assembly, wrote New Haven Register reporter Susan Misur, was to make students aware of how public their photos, tweets and profiles are online. To make this point, the presentation included a slide show with pictures and updates grabbed from the students’ Facebook, Twitter and Tumblr accounts.

Far from feeling chastened by the presentation, students were outraged. “I kind of thought, ‘It’s like if you put it online, anyone can see it,’ ” one student said. “But then at the same time, it’s like kind of not fair for the police officers to put that on display without their permission and without them knowing.”

The same student told the reporter that kids who weren’t at the presentation were “really mad” when they found out how their content had been used. Others expressed their dismay on Twitter, calling the act “corrupt.”

For those of us over 30, Internet privacy means identity theft and government eavesdropping. Parents fret that their children’s online behavior will make them targets of predators or corporations, or will ruin future academic or employment opportunities.

But people who have grown up online seem to have developed sophisticated standards of privacy in the very public sphere of social media that their parents really don’t appreciate. The attitude of today’s teens might best be expressed as “just because you can, that doesn’t mean you should.”

Ironically, this is a concept that most adults adhere to every day in the offline world. When dining in a crowded restaurant, for example, a person might be a foot away from an unknown couple and able to hear much of their conversation. But most people don’t stare or listen or inject themselves in the conversation going on at the table next to them. We pretend not to hear them. To do otherwise would be disrespectful. It would be a violation of privacy. Yet that’s exactly what parents, teachers and cops do when they butt into their kids’ social media activity online.

“Privacy is in a state of flux not because the values surrounding it have radically changed, but because the infrastructure through which people engage with each other has,” write social media scientists Danah Boyd and Alice Marwick in a working paper on teens’ attitudes, practices and strategies regarding online privacy.

Through interviews with teens across 20 states from 2006 to 2010, the researchers gathered data on what teens think about privacy and how they achieve it in today’s world. One difficulty that teens face, the researchers note, is that adults regularly violate social codes and decorum. This was exemplified in the anger and frustration students felt when the school officials used their pictures in the Internet safety presentation.

“By taking the images out of context, the educators had violated students’ social norms and thus their sense of dignity, fairness and respect,” write Boyd and Marwick.

As one of their interviewees, “Waffles,” put it: “Just because teenagers use Internet sites to connect to other people doesn’t mean they don’t care about their privacy…. To go ahead and say that teenagers don’t like privacy is pretty ignorant and inconsiderate honestly, I believe, on the adult’s part.”

Parents who would never dream of reading a diary left open on a kitchen table or eavesdropping on a tearful phone call think nothing of checking their teens’ Facebook pages. And not only that, they leave evidence of their cluelessness in the form of unwelcome comments (“Way to go, Sweetie!!!!!”). These parents may not realize that what they’re doing is so insensitive that it’s the online equivalent of showing embarrassing baby pictures to their kids’ prom dates.

Because many parents haven’t caught on to the application of social norms online, teenagers are doing what they’ve always done: speaking in code. A recent Pew report found that 62 percent of older teens use inside jokes and references to talk online in ways that parents won’t understand. The kids can’t control who looks at their content, but they can control who understands it. They can reclaim their privacy through what the researchers call “social steganography,” the age-old tactic of hiding a message in plain sight.

One teenager interviewed by Boyd and Marwick, “Carmen,” said her mom was always looking at and commenting on her Facebook page. Carmen was feeling blue after breaking up with her boyfriend, but knew if she posted something explicitly saying that, her mom would read it and worry about her. So Carmen posted the lyrics from “Always Look on the Bright Side of Life,” an ironic song from the Monty Python movie Life of Brian that’s sung by the main character as he’s being crucified (no really, it’s funny). Carmen’s mom read the post and commented on how great her daughter seemed to be doing. Carmen’s friends read the post and texted her to see what was up.

More Stories from Science News on Tech