Kids These Days, With the Hair and the Music and the Facebook

A quick follow-up to Weinergate 2.0 and the problem of teen privacy which I mentioned in my last post

In another life some time ago, I taught a few classes in privacy and awareness online for high school kids. It was a lot of fun, but it also had some troublesome moments. In particular, I quickly became aware that the kids quite simply were not aware in any deep way of long-term information retention online as a problem for their future selves.

In one class in particular, in a classroom with afternoon summer sun glaring in, I told a group of heat-soporific students that You Kids need to be aware that instagrams or tumblrs or blogposts or open facebook statuses about you that go online with your name attached or with your face visible are never going to go away. Stuff online does not go away. We are already taking snapshots of the internet several times a year. And if you do stuff on SnapChat or a webcam, people can still take screenshots of you.

And future search engines may have facial recognition systems. Those pictures of you doing drugs or making out with the wrong guy or a person of your own sex or flashing your bulge or your cleavage or doing something a little bit out of the ordinary, sexually, or doing anything NSFW are never going to go away. They will be potentially available to future employers, boyfriends, girlfriends, friends, police officers, parents, roommates, Gestapo officers, stalkers … And in this one class especially, I remember an audible gasp rippling through the heat of the room. It was the sound of an entire room quietly going oh my fucking fuck at the same time.*

* Which, you know, I totally get. I had pretty much the same reaction when I discovered that stupid shit I wrote when I was 18 became publicly archived in a mailing list archive. It is seriously embarrassing, and I hope that nobody will ever dig deep enough to find it.

I was lucky, I said to them. My wild years started coming to an end just as social media started taking off. I don’t know what I’d done if I had grown up at the same time as you had. Or actually, I did. I’d be doing the exact same things they were doing.

The bright spot is that teen culture seems to be evolving to create new and future-safe privacy strategies. The most interesting thing I’ve read about this is Social Privacy in Networked Publics: Teens’ Attitudes, Practices, and Strategies, which is a great paper by danah boyd and Alice Marwick. The paper concludes:

Fundamentally, privacy is a social norm. Legal regulation is legislated to protect  individuals from harm. The market competes in opposite directions, trying to “win” both by enhancing privacy and leveraging opportunities to invade people’s privacy for financial gains. Likewise, technologies will be built both to protect and erode privacy. But when it comes to social privacy, the biggest battles will be around the social norms that regulate it. In other words, what is socially appropriate in networked publics? How are norms signaled and violations recognized? What social sanctions can be used to curb violations? There are no clear answers to this, but what is clear is that teenagers are working hard to bring social norms into the equation. They’re developing strategies for managing privacy in public spaces as they try to assert control over social situations. They may not always be successful, and they may consistently face violations of their privacy, but they are not discarding privacy as a result.

After class, half of the kids came up and wanted to ask more specific questions. How do I set my privacy settings on Facebook? (You google it.) How can I get something removed from a friend’s blog? (You ask.) We like to think that kids are digital natives and somehow just get the internet. It’s not true. They don’t. They need to be taught how things work, how their privacy choices today affect them five, ten, fifteen years down the line.

Not least because in about fifteen to twenty years, some of these kids are going to start to have serious careers, to be powerful, to be involved in civic life, get elected to public office. And by then we’ll need to learn to both accept previous personal mishaps as the cost of being human in the constant public sphere and we’re going to have to get smart about administrating our privacy and not leaving digital trails of our misspent youths.

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