Teen Privacy and Safety Online: Knowledge, Attitudes, and Practices

Today teens have tech-saturated lives. Threats to online personal safety and privacy are a growing risk that teens face as social media (i.e., social networking and messaging platforms) transforms the manner in which they interact and share personal information with each other. The concept of online privacy and safety is not static, but rather continues to evolve through advances in technology and with teens’ increased use of the Internet, social media, and mobile apps. According to research from Pew, teens’ actual technology use revolves around social media preferences, online communication, information sharing practices, experiences with online privacy and safety, and online privacy/safety attitudes and practices. Below are important findings from Pew Research Center’s report on Teens, Social Media, and Privacy (2013):

• Online Access – Teens have robust levels of access to devices (i.e., desktop PC, laptop, tablet, phone, gaming consoles) for frequent and almost constant online access. Two-thirds of teens had access to more than one device. Smartphones and other mobile devices have become the primary devices for online access for teens.

• Social Media Preferences – Teens reported growing diversification in their social media preferences, and most used more than one social networking site. Although Facebook remains the social networking platform of choice for teens, younger teens—girls in particular— increasingly prefer visually oriented and anonymous sharing platforms.

• Online Communication Practices – Texting remains the primary mode of communication between teens. Although variations exist by gender, age, and race, teens are increasingly engaging with newer social media platforms that enable a broader range of communication modes. This allows for more diverse information sharing practices.

• Online Information Sharing Practices – The degree to which teens disclosed personal information—as well as the kinds of information they shared online—depended on the context. For example, teens disclosed a broad range of personal information for social benefit on social networking platforms, while on commercial websites teens disclosed both factual and false personal information in exchange for perceived benefits.

• Online Privacy and Safety Experiences – Many teens reported positive experiences online, however some experienced privacy breaches and encountered unwanted content and contact from others. Personal experience of privacy breaches can influence teens’ online privacy behaviors, and individuals who experience unwanted contact are among
the most likely to say that they limit what other users can see on their profile.

• Online Privacy and Safety Attitudes – Teens cared more about threats to social privacy and less about personal data access by corporate and government organizations, and expressed high levels of confidence in their ability to self-manage. In the social context of information disclosure, younger teens are more likely to be concerned with potential risks to their physical safety, whereas older teens are more concerned with risks to their reputation.

• Online Privacy and Safety Practices – Few teens embraced a fully public approach in which they completely shared all information, and a large amount of effort is dedicated to managing privacy settings as well as engaging in reputation/network management practices (Marwick, Murgia-Diaz, & Palfrey, 2010). However, when teens are seeking advice—which is often in response to a crisis situation—they are more likely to turn to peers, friends, and family than go online for information or advice.

In understanding current teen attitudes and practices towards online privacy and safety, it is important to distinguish that teens care more about social privacy than they do about privacy in the context of third-parties and big data/information privacy. In comparison with earlier generations of teens, the modern vulnerabilities and risks to privacy and safety are heightened further by the persistent, visible, searchable, and spreadable nature of online social environments. A 2015 study cited that there are five top safety concerns with having youth online: harassment, solicitation, exposure, informational, and ethical risks (Wisniewski, Jia, Xu, Rosson, & Carroll). The privacy issue for many teens is now centered around the multiple facets of controlling a social situation, including Internet knowledge, having the power or agency within a social situation, understanding the social situation or context, and possessing the skills to manage the social situation. These skills are more valuable in current risks to online privacy than the technical aspects of digital privacy, which usually revolve around controlling information, access, or visibility. Within this context, teens’ attitudes towards online privacy and safety are formed in the following ways:

• Social media enables teens to extend and reinforce real-world peer relationships – Posting information online is a way for youth to express themselves, connect with peers, increase their popularity, and bond with friends and peers. As a result, social media and mobile technologies play key roles in reinforcing both individual friendships and peer group relationships.

• Teens’ privacy norms vary according to the social context of their platform preferences – Depending on the social media platform, young people want to be able to control what peers and non-peers are able to view online within a social context. Teens aren’t necessarily looking to “hide” from non-peers; rather, they define their restriction policies as a way to create privacy.

• Teens tend to first disclose and then evaluate consequences – The way teens learn how to manage privacy risk online is often very different from how adults approach privacy management. The process is more experiential in nature for teens, which is at odds with parental norms and values (Jia, Wisniewski, Xu, Rosson, & Carroll, 2015).

• Teens’ online practices appear risky to outsiders but are normative within a peer context – Adults tend to project their norms and values onto teens without consideration for the teen experience. As a result, what adults interpret as a violation of “privacy” may actually be normative within a teen’s peer context.

• ‘Privacy’ is a continuum along which teens adopt a ‘risk-benefit’ approach to sharing – Although there is no founded correlation between providing personal data online and a lack of concern for privacy, choosing what to conceal or reveal is an intense and ongoing process for teens that involves trade-offs depending on the context.

• Teens explore techniques to control interpretation of content to achieve privacy in public – Limiting access to content by encoding hidden meaning within texts is a strategy that teens employ to control the social situation and reclaim agency.

• Age and gender are key variables in understanding teens’ privacy attitudes and behaviors – As teens age, adult monitoring of activities begins to decline, and the likelihood of providing personal information online increases. While this makes teens more likely to hold increasingly sophisticated views of media literacy, it also leads to greater concerns over the potential for commercial misuse of their personal information. Girls are more likely to be concerned by privacy and feel more vulnerable to risks.

• Teens’ concerns and perceptions of risk—and their sense of vulnerability—influence privacy practices – Teens are more likely to engage in a broad range of privacy-protecting behaviors, as well as manage privacy settings, if they are concerned with privacy, perceive information risk, or see themselves as vulnerable.

• Researchers recommend active parental mediation over direct parental intervention – Parents who use direct intervention may have a suppressive effect on teens, whereas a more consultative approach through active mediation may be more beneficial in protecting teens from severe online risks. Consultative approaches also empower teens, leading them to engage with others online and learn to make good online privacy choices.

The networks that emerge as a result of the intersection of people, technology, and practice have significant implications for teens’ privacy and safety online. Recognizing a teen’s needs for privacy and autonomy within the social context is important for understanding their relationship to social media, as well as the privacy strategies that teens implement to counter the power dynamic that emerges through surveillance from adult authority figures. A key distinction that adults fail to make is that informational privacy is not as big an issue for teens as social privacy. This is not to say that informational privacy is not a valid concern, but that teens perceive it to be less of an intrusion on their privacy than surveillance by authority figures.

When participating in networks, teens tend to embrace a widespread “public-by-default, private-through-effort” mentality (boyd, 2014). Although research shows teens tend to rely on themselves to self-manage day-to-day privacy and employ considerable effort in managing privacy settings and other technical mechanisms of control, they often switch to a different medium such as messaging applications to communicate directly with peer audiences when they think information might be sensitive (Carroll & Kirkpatrick, 2011). When teens lack the resources to self-manage, they are more likely to seek advice on how to manage their privacy online from a friend, peer, or family member than an authority figure. Thus, peer education models are a powerful tool to influence behavior, knowledge, norms, and attitudes by providing spaces in which individuals learn from their peers. Multiple studies have proven the efficacy and usefulness of peer education (Stakic, Zielony, Bodiroza, Kimzeke, 2003; Shiner, 1999; Turner & Shepherd, 1999). Digital privacy and security—which can be viewed as sensitive subject matter among teens—may similarly benefit from peer models used for sexual health promotion and reproductive health (Bulduk & Erdogan, 2012; Alford, 2011a).

While parents, teachers, and other adults may not be the preferred go-to resources for information about Internet privacy, relying on peers for advice has a drawback—the quality of their advice may not necessarily match the rigor of information that could have been received from parents or other expert sources.
Proposed considerations for designing and implementing a digital privacy competition and campaign include:

• Interest categories based on teen demographics and privacy concerns (i.e., social privacy, mobile apps, security threats).

• Thematic categories based on standard control mechanisms (i.e., technical affordances), influencers (i.e., human, online), and innovative strategies (i.e., controlling meaning).

• Promotional outreach through preferred information (i.e., visually-oriented, humorous) and communication modes (i.e., short video format) and channels (i.e., Instagram, Vine, YouTube).

• Message concepts that appeal to the emotions of different teens (i.e., physical safety, digital reputation management, hacking) with verbiage that they use. Messaging that is empowering and not restrictive leads to creating a trusted environment. Approaches that are defensive and fear-based are often ineffective.

• Campaign resources need to be trustworthy, credible, easily accessible, and offer information in a nonthreatening way. Enhance search engine optimization (SEO) to improve search ranking and the promotion of digital privacy and safety websites.

• Endorsements from celebrities (i.e., Naya Rivera, Drake, Alex from Target, PewDiePie) and respected peer community leaders (i.e., digital literacy) to promote the competition and campaign.

• Popular culture events trigger heightened awareness and interest (i.e., bring risks to life, worst case scenarios) and monitoring for these will support timely promotional outreach.


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