On Facebook, Teens & Privacy

by on October 16, 2013 · 4 comments

Facebook announced some changes to its site today that will make it easier for teen users to share content with not just their friends but also the entire world. (More coverage at The Washington Post here.) No doubt, some privacy advocates will cry foul and rush to policymakers with requests for restrictions. Yet, it’s not clear to me what their case would be. There isn’t any COPPA issue here since we are talking about teens, and they aren’t covered by the law. Moreover, it seems entirely sensible to allow teens to make their voices heard more broadly via Facebook’s platform the same way they can via many other online sites and services. Teens have speech rights, too, after all.

On the other hand, this is another “teachable moment” that parents should take advantage of. When sites (especially larger sites like Facebook) change their policies and make it easier for our kids to share more about themselves and their feelings, that is always a great time to have another chat with them about acceptable online behavior. I’ve spent a lot of time here and elsewhere talking about the importance of “Netiquette,” or proper online etiquette in various social settings and situations. We need to talk to our kids and each other about being more savvy, sensible, respectful, and resilient media consumers and digital citizens. And schools and even governments have a role to play in pushing education and media literacy in pursuit of better “digital citizenship.”

The crucial lesson here — and this certainly has relevance to today’s Facebook announcement — is that we need to constantly be encouraging our kids to think about smarter online hygiene (sensible personal data use) and proper behavior toward others. We can, without using excessive fear tactics, do more to explain the potential perils of over-sharing information about ourselves and others while simultaneously encouraging kids to delete unnecessary online information occasionally and cover their digital footprints in other ways. These efforts and lessons should start at a young age and continue on well into adulthood through other means, including awareness campaigns and public service announcements.

For its part, Facebook is taking the sensible step of issuing multiple warnings to teens before they use the new tools now at their disposal to communicate to the world. Before they first post publicly, they’ll apparently see an inline pop-up box warning them they are a posting for a broader audience than just their friends. I can’t see what more Facebook should do to educate kids in this regard. I suppose they could issue endless warnings each and every time that teens go to post publicly, but then the pop-up overload would just become annoying and drive kids away entirely.

Facebook also offers a lot of ways for users to clamp down on their sharing, but it defeats the whole purpose of the site if you are cranking all those settings up to maximum restrictiveness because, by its very nature, Facebook is all about sharing. So, we shouldn’t expect Facebook to switch all those defaults over to a completely locked-down experience.

If you don’t like the fact that your teen shares a lot on Facebook, you probably need to ask yourself if you want them on Facebook at all. Personally, Facebook is just not for me (I stopped using it well over a year ago; just too much of a Digital Nudist Colony for my taste) and my kids haven’t expressed much interest in it yet (which is probably good since they are not yet 13!)  But if and when they do express interest (and are old enough to join), I will be happy to sit down with them, walk through the process of setting up a profile, and use the opportunity to talk to them in a open, understanding, and loving fashion about the ups and downs of digital life in a mass-sharing, hyper-transparent ecosystem like Facebook.

Honestly, as a parent, I don’t think Facebook is all that concerning from the perspective of safety, although it can at times be a bit more concerning when it comes to privacy. But many kids today aren’t even all that into Facebook and other social networking sites, viewing them as the spaces where old farts hang out. Today’s kids are more into visual media, texting, and services that let them instantaneously combine those services to rapidly create and share their lives and their feelings. My daughter and her friends walk around all day and night long filming each other and then creating silly mash-ups of the best moments before sharing them with each other and classmates. The potential for mistakes is always there and I am constantly talking to her about what she films, when she films, and who she shares the clips with. But in the end, she is being remarkably creative and enjoying herself immensely in the process. I want to encourage that since it is rewarding for both her and for me. I am very proud of what my kids can do with modern digital media and jealous that I did not have similar tools and opportunities when I was young! But I also want to make sure she understands the potential downsides and dangers of oversharing or inappropriate uses of modern video and texting technologies.

Patience and personal responsibility is always more sensible than panic. That’s something we should keep in mind when companies like Facebook and others role out new tools and features that our kids will gradually assimilate into their lives. Talk to them about it, help them make smart decisions, and constantly reinforce those positive messages.  But most of all, don’t panic!

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