Keeping Teens ‘Private’ on Facebook Won’t Protect Them

(Originally written for TIME Magazine)

We’re afraid of and afraid for teenagers. And nothing brings out this dualism more than discussions of how and when teens should be allowed to participate in public life.

Last week, Facebook made changes to teens’ content-sharing options. They introduced the opportunity for those ages 13 to 17 to share their updates and images with everyone and not just with their friends. Until this change, teens could not post their content publicly even though adults could. When minors select to make their content public, they are given a notice and a reminder in order to make it very clear to them that this material will be shared publicly. “Public” is never the default for teens; they must choose to make their content public, and they must affirm that this is what they intended at the point in which they choose to publish.

Representatives of parenting organizations have responded to this change negatively, arguing that this puts children more at risk. And even though the Pew Internet & American Life Project has found that teens are quite attentive to their privacy, and many other popular sites allow teens to post publicly (e.g. Twitter, YouTube, Tumblr), privacy advocates are arguing that Facebook’s decision to give teens choices suggests that the company is undermining teens’ privacy.

But why should youth not be allowed to participate in public life? Do paternalistic, age-specific technology barriers really protect or benefit teens?

One of the most crucial aspects of coming of age is learning how to navigate public life. The teenage years are precisely when people transition from being a child to being an adult. There is no magic serum that teens can drink on their 18th birthday to immediately mature and understand the world around them. Instead, adolescents must be exposed to — and allowed to participate in — public life while surrounded by adults who can help them navigate complex situations with grace. They must learn to be a part of society, and to do so, they must be allowed to participate.

Most teens no longer see Facebook as a private place. They befriend anyone they’ve ever met, from summer-camp pals to coaches at universities they wish to attend. Yet because Facebook doesn’t allow youth to contribute to public discourse through the site, there’s an assumption that the site is more private than it is. Facebook’s decision to allow teens to participate in public isn’t about suddenly exposing youth; it’s about giving them an option to treat the site as being as public as it often is in practice.

Rather than trying to protect teens from all fears and risks that we can imagine, let’s instead imagine ways of integrating them constructively into public life. The key to doing so is not to create technologies that reinforce limitations but to provide teens and parents with the mechanisms and information needed to make healthy decisions. Some young people may be ready to start navigating broad audiences at 13; others are not ready until they are much older. But it should not be up to technology companies to determine when teens are old enough to have their voices heard publicly. Parents should be allowed to work with their children to help them navigate public spaces as they see fit. And all of us should be working hard to inform our younger citizens about the responsibilities and challenges of being a part of public life. I commend Facebook for giving teens the option and working hard to inform them of the significance of their choices.

(Originally written for TIME Magazine)

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4 thoughts on “Keeping Teens ‘Private’ on Facebook Won’t Protect Them

  1. Mojo Jojo

    First off, I agree with you that Facebook shouldn’t impose teenage restrictions when other popular social media sites don’t. Parents (hopefully) do a better job of parenting than companies whose principal customers are advertisers.

    However, we live in an age where the “broad audience” consists not only of the contemporary audience, but audiences many decades down the road. It is increasingly easy to obtain information about people. So, the decision to engage in public social media is akin to getting tattoos. Social media really is a series of life decisions. Heck, it’s probably easier to “modify” a tattoo than it is a provocative social media post. Most parents (at least in the U.S.) don’t allow their teenage children to get tattoos. Is that unduly paternalistic?

    “public life” is increasingly more complex to navigate in a surveillance society seeking all your metadata to sell your dossier. I suspect that if you were to ask most adults “hey, can you navigate complex Facebook stuff with grace”, they would sarcastically laugh and say “yeah, right” (or words to that effect). Heck, most adults don’t select sane passwords or embrace stronger forms of authentications, and that’s simply the first gate to hurdle in getting engaged with social media. I think you’re overestimating the capabilities of parents to provide good guidance.

  2. Janine Darling

    Every generation says ‘it is so hard to raise children into responsible, well-functioning adults these days’…and so it continues.

    Protecting your teenager from the world is a double-edged sword. While the short term gain is parental peace of mind, the long term obstacle is the child does not have the opportunity to learn, adapt and grow. So it is with privacy.

    Privacy and security are hot buttons of modern society worldwide. The best defense is a strong offense. Teaching our children to utilize every means of protecting their privacy while enabling their chosen network to interact with them seamlessly is no small feat.

    The best we can do as parents is to seek out the people, companies and social tools that are respectful and genuine when it comes to protecting everyone’s sensitive data.

    This is the credo of Stash. Private and Secure Made Simple for Consumers Only. ( As the Founder and CEO, I wanted somewhere to put my most important information and keepsakes that I knew could not be compromised. When I couldn’t find it, I built it. It’s where I personally keep my precious data, and where I can share it within the closed environment of my Stash vault with only the people I pre-authorize to see it.

    As for Facebook, the best advice is, if you have something private to share, the best policy is simply to never post it on Facebook.

    Getting a teenager to follow that advice? It’s as it has always been – easier said than done.

  3. BBald

    Hi, I’m a college student taking an ethics class focusing on how technology is used and am required to respond to a blog post. This week I have chosen to reply to yours.

    I tend to agree with Danah Boyd in that Facebook, or any other company for that matter, should not decide for us how public our information is, wither we are a teen or an adult. Ultimately I think it should be the responsibility of the user to know what they choose to post publicly and what they choose to post private. This responsibility is something we need to make sure we teach teens so that they are better adults and is something that I do not think we can teach well if our social platforms, such as Facebook, prevent them from posting publicly. But I don’t think the responsibility stops with just being responsible for what you post. I think our responsibility is also in making sure that the companies that handle our information handle it in the way that we wish.

    In other wards if you post something that is private companies should not be allowed to share it PERIOD with anyone you do not consent to share it with. For example, Rebecca MacKinnon when discussing this responsibility in her book Consent of the Networked, talks about how that the government cannot legally go through your mail or your home without a search warrant, the government being limited by the 4th amendment. However, they can go through your email and other information on the internet without the need for a warrant even though it is still your information.

    So Personally I think Facebook is ethically right in allowing teens to post publicly, however I think those of us that are adults need to take the time to learn about what is going on and how our data is being used so that we can better teach our teens. Then speak up about it and get companies to design their platforms better to give us more control over our data and where it goes and who sees it, as well as adjusting their policies to make our information more secure. I think it would be great to see companies place controls in the hands of the parents as to wither their teen is allowed to post something public or not. How that could be done I’m not sure but it would mirror parenting in the real world more where the parent can say to a teen “no you can’t go to that movie or party” or “yes you can go”.


  4. Lisa Bostwick

    always interested in your work. having been in high school a total of 29 years 25 teaching… I find your ideas and POV inspiring … I am now positively sure one role of the high school educator is to create meaningful opportunities to help students reflect on their digital lives.. experience has been that teens are hungry for opportunities to think deeply about social media, gaming, device addiction and the digital oxygen they breathe …thanks for always providing new lens into this important world.

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