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Then and Now

The Truth About Teenagers, The Internet, And Privacy

It's complicated.

[Photo: Flickr user Alagich Katya]

Did you see that study on privacy in the digital age?

If you're wondering which one, there's a good reason for that. Every few months, a new study hits the press about how different generations relate to privacy and so far, the results have been all over the map.

Last year, USC’s Annenberg Center for the Digital Future released research showing that younger Internet users are more comfortable sharing their personal data than their older counterparts. Commenting on the data, Jeffrey Cole, the Center’s director, went so far as to declare, "Online privacy is dead." But then, a few months later, a slew of data reflected very different results: Harris Interactive found that the 78% of millennials expressed a wish for privacy, compared to 59% of older internet users. Pew Internet also found that users aged 18 to 29 are more likely to have cleared their browsing histories, disabled cookies or declined to use their real name on a website.

So which narrative is correct?

A big part of the problem here is that the definition of "privacy" is a tricky one to pin down. In many of these studies, respondents were not asked whom they were concerned about hiding their personal information from. Were they concerned about the government? Corporations? People they know in real life? Ian Miller, who is pursuing doctoral research on the psychology of online sharing at the University of Toronto, says this additional information would provide valuable context because each generation has distinct privacy concerns. "Adolescents consider different things to be private than adults," he tells me. "They don’t seem to care as much about sharing gross demographic characteristics as older people do; they don’t take the time to make these details like age, religion or location private on Facebook even though they know how to." According to Pew, the majority of teens publicly share their real name, where they live and the school they attend on their social channels.

But Miller says that teens are also very savvy about hiding aspects of their virtual lives, particularly from authority figures. "The kind of privacy adolescents want is the same kind of privacy that they have always wanted," he says. "Instead of being played off against the government or a corporation, it’s being played off against their parents. They don’t care if Facebook knows their religion, but they do care if their parents find out about their sex life." As the average age of Facebook users skews older and mom, dad and even grandma join the site, teenagers have become highly skilled at hiding incriminating evidence like the fact that they went to a bar on Friday night, wore a skimpy costume to a Halloween party, or smoked pot that one time.

danah boyd, a professor at Harvard University’s Berkman Center for the Internet and Society, argues that teenagers closely scrutinize what they share online because it is a way for them to negotiate their changing identities. In her book, It’s Complicated: The Social Lives of Networked Teens, she describes how teenagers carefully curate their feeds based on the audience they are trying to reach.

This is their chance, for instance, to make a positive impression on the cool kids at school or highlight their taste in indie music to impress a person they have a crush on. In other words, the pressure to create a unique identity pushes teens to disclose things publicly that adults may choose not to.

Teenagers are more aware of online privacy settings than most adults, simply because they use these tools more frequently. "For adults, the concept of privacy tends to be more abstract; it might have to do with general principles about one’s relationship with the government or corporate America," says Miller. "But teens’ understanding of privacy is very real and concrete. They know exactly why they need to restrict their privacy settings because they don’t want this one friend to see this one thing." With this knowledge and skill comes some degree of power. While older users may see the sharing of their information as inherently worrisome because they do not fully understand how to control it, teenagers are quick to learn how to use privacy settings to their best advantage.

Younger people also tend to be less concerned with giving advertisers and brands their data. In the Annenberg Center’s study, researchers found that millennials are willing to give up personal information to brands if they receive some sort of benefit in return. For instance, 56% of millennials were willing to share their location with companies in order to receive coupons to nearby businesses, versus 42% of those 35 and older. And a quarter of millennials were willing to receive targeted ads, compared to less than a fifth of older users. On the other end of the spectrum, some mostly older users are highly suspicious of allowing companies to use any of their data at all. Earlier this year, when Facebook announced that it would target ads based on a user’s web browsing habits, it received criticism from organizations like the Electronic Privacy Information Center.

But for teens and even millennials, sharing data with companies is now going deeper than a simple exchange of value. Young people not just acquiescing to give their data to companies, they are actively sharing their content with brands they like. For instance, the fashion brand Madewell created a popular leather tote bag that has a devoted following and women around the world have taken pictures of themselves carrying the bag with the hashtag #Totewell, hoping that Madewell will use it on it’s webpage.

A company called ThisMoment specializes in helping manage the content that floods Twitter, Vine, Facebook, and Instagram from young people eager to connect with companies. ThisMoment creates a dashboard for brands like Levi’s, Sephora, and Coca-Cola to see what consumers are posting in real time; if a brand sees a particularly great image, it can immediately ask that user for permission to use it in its marketing. So far, ThisMoment has seen a 70% user approval rate. "Millennials and Gen Z (those under 19) are sharing a vast amounts of content with brands, and this is changing the advertising industry," says Vince Broady, ThisMoment’s founder and CEO. "Content from peers and other real people is becoming an increasingly important way for young consumers to feel connected to a brand."

Broady believes that brands are increasingly becoming part of the adolescent’s process of creating their identity. "As you go down in age, affinity to brands is very tied to values, personality and self-expression," he says. "When young people create something that connects them to that brand, it is really an extension of what they stand for so, of course, it makes sense that they want it to be as visible as possible. This is a totally different mentality to thinking that big bad corporations are stealing my data." To teenage digital natives, who have spent their lives creating an online persona that is just as valuable as their real-life one, there is a psychological payoff that comes with associating themselves with brands. This concept may seem alien to an older generation that uses social media not to create their identity, but as just another communication tool.

While teenagers’ privacy concerns have been closely examined when it comes to how they relate to brands and other people, experts do not fully understand how teens feel about the government’s use of their data. That may be because it is still a fluid situation: today’s adolescents are growing up in the context of a national conversation about the NSA, Edward Snowden, and spying—issues that are being debated as I type this sentence. "It’s still unclear exactly how these issues will impact their behavior and choices in the years to come, but I guarantee that it will," says Miller, of the University of Toronto. "They’re soaking this knowledge in and living it in a way that is very different from older generations."

Adolescents have been migrating away from Facebook and Twitter over the last few years, showing preference for sites like Snapchat, Whisper, Kik, and Secret that provide more anonymity and privacy. Part of this transition can be explained by the fact that the older social media sites stopped being cool when parents joined them, but perhaps another reason could be that teenagers growing up in the post-Snowden era implicitly understand the value of anonymity. For teens, it’s not a matter of which platform to use, but rather which works best in a particular context.

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