The Signal

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Privacy, personas and the pressure to share

Patrik Nygren/Flickr
Patrik Nygren/Flickr

By J.R. Williams
As kids craft their digital selves, there's more at stake than just reputation

In our last post, we explored a seemingly contradictory conclusion: While teens are confronted with adult themes in media earlier than ever before, crime rates and other signs of youthful rebellion are dropping.

As the first generation of millennials emerges from a childhood spent entirely online, our assumptions are challenged. And as those teens become young adults, they’re also displaying seemingly contradictory behavior about their online privacy.

Surveys have shown that young adults are more likely than other groups to share personal information on the Internet. But people in that 18-29 age group are also more likely than their parents to change browser settings, untag themselves on other people’s photos or withhold their real names from a website, according to a recent study by the Pew Research Center.

So if young adults are more concerned about digital privacy, why post at all? For a majority of them, there are few boundaries between their real lives and their digital ones, and we would argue those choices are less about privacy and more about persona. The pressure to post is real, and teenagers are calibrating their digital identities:

“When I go on Facebook or any social network, I try to be perfect,” a high-schooler said during an MTV Town Hall hosted by Common Sense Media. “And then when I’m around my friends, you know, I’m not perfect. I don’t have to be perfect. But for a bunch of strangers online — I don’t know who they are or where they live — I have to. And I’ve seen a bunch of people try to do that as well. They try to make themselves look like a person they’re not to impress people they don’t know.”

Posts as performance are unhealthy, and our children should understand that likes and shares aren't a measure of self-worth. But privacy should be part of the conversation, too.

Sound familiar, adults? Who hasn’t untagged an unattractive photo of themselves, or agonized over just the right profile picture? This is a version of yourself that is instantly accessible. Posts as performance are unhealthy, and our children should know that likes and shares aren’t a reflection of self-worth. But privacy should be part of the conversation, too.

Before it transformed newsgathering, early, shortsighted criticisms of Twitter included the bewilderment of being faced with a picture of our neighbor’s bowl of Cheerio’s. “This is what Twitter is for? Who cares?” we said. While that kind of post certainly hasn’t disappeared from our feeds, we now have a better understanding of the permanence of what we share and how it affects our reputation. But what about the impact on our privacy?

With hundreds of friends on an open Facebook account, a genuine risk exists. Parents should remind themselves — and their children — that some details in social media posts, even ones that can seem innocuous, should be scrutinized to the same degree as a friend’s surprise candid photo of you.

“While most posts are harmless, social media oversharing can put you at risk for identity theft,” said Joe Ross, president and co-founder of identity protection firm CSID, in a column for The Huffington Post. “Sometimes, this sharing is occurring unknowingly. That’s why it’s important for you to understand your privacy settings that can control who can see your photos, status updates, social profile and more.”

Simple protections, such as making your account private and disabling location tagging can go a long way, but many of our everyday activities shouldn’t be for the masses. Cue the whistleblower and former NSA contractor Edward Snowden, who knows a thing or two about this:

“Everybody doesn’t need to know everything about us. Your friend doesn’t need to know what pharmacy you go to,” Snowden said in a recent interview with The Intercept. “Facebook doesn’t need to know your password security questions. You don’t need to have your mother’s maiden name on your Facebook page, if that’s what you use for recovering your password on Gmail.

“The idea here is that sharing is OK, but it should always be voluntary. It should be thoughtful, it should be things that are mutually beneficial to people that you’re sharing with, and these aren’t things that are simply taken from you.”

J.R. Williams

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