Much of the media coverage surrounding young people and online social networks has focused on the type and amount of personal information teens make available on these networks. Are they sharing information that will harm their future college or job prospects? Or worse, are they sharing information that puts them at risk of victimization?
We set out to examine how teens understand their privacy through several lenses: by looking at the choices that teens make to share or not to share information online, by examining what they share, the context in which they share it and their own assessment of their vulnerability. For many online teens, particularly those with profiles, privacy choices are made manifest in the information shared in a social networking profile. Of course, material shared in a profile is just one of a larger number of places where information is shared online – but it provides a snapshot into the choices that teens make to share in a relatively public and persistent online environment.
“Just pictures. And not obscene pictures. Like if my Mom saw it I wouldn’t care. I’m really careful with that whole MySpace thing. I’ve heard of employers not hiring people because of it. So I just put things up there that if my Grandma or Mom saw it I wouldn’t care. It wouldn’t be a big deal.”
– Girl, Late High School
In order to understand these issues better, we asked a series of questions both in representative national phone surveys and in focus groups that gauged teens’ sense of privacy relating to sharing personal information. We wanted to understand how teens make decisions to share information both in online and offline contexts. Two scenarios were presented in our survey and focus groups: First, we asked teens about the kinds of information they might consider sharing with someone they had just met at a party or other social situation, and we followed with questions regarding the information teens have shared on an online profile.