Teenagers are often accused of being careless and naïve – particularly when it comes to the way they manage their privacy and digital footprints online. Yet, our data suggest that many online teens are considering the implications of their actions at least some of the time. Indeed, more than half (55%) of online teens say they have decided not to post something online out of concern that it might reflect poorly on them in the future.
As other prominent social media researchers have noted, the privacy-protecting behaviors of youth are complex, and involve a combination of application choice, profile settings, selective friending, and message control. Contrary to the public perception that teens and young adults simply “don’t care” about their privacy online, there is growing evidence that younger users’ privacy aspirations are not radically different from the views held by older adults. One recent study conducted by researchers at the Berkeley Center for Law and Technology suggests that while some younger users of social media may have false confidence in the protections afforded by privacy laws, their attitudes and expectations about privacy are largely in sync with older Americans.
Our focus group conversations with teens also highlight various examples of how they think about the impact of their online postings, and how they adjust their behavior accordingly. Some teens, such as one middle school girl we spoke with, decide to refrain from using social network sites altogether:
MIDDLE SCHOOL GIRL: I don’t want a Facebook. I’m afraid that like someday, something’s going to come back and it’s going to be like the end of my world because – I mean I don’t know what I would do […] that would be so bad […] But you hear stories and it just – it worries me. Like I tell all my friends who like take pictures, like, I’m like, you can’t tag me in that. You can’t tag anybody who’s not on Facebook.
Older teen internet users (ages 14-17) are more likely than younger teens (ages 12-13) to say they have reconsidered posting content online after thinking about the possibility of negative implications (59% vs. 46%). However, online teens age 17—who are likely to be preparing for or in the midst of college and job applications—report the highest levels of this kind of digital withholding. More than two-thirds of online teens age 17 (67%) say they have decided not to post something online because they thought it may reflect badly on them in the future.
Older online girls ages 14-17 (63%) are more likely than the youngest boys ages 12-13 (40%) to say they have refrained from posting content because it might affect how they are perceived in the future. However, this difference may be related to the fact that older girls are much more frequent internet users and post content more often to social media sites.
Teen social network site users are almost twice as likely as non-social network site-using online teens (60% vs. 34%) to say they have withheld content after considering the potential ramifications.
Again, there were no notable variations according to the frequency of teens’ social network site use or the kinds of privacy settings they choose for their profile.