New Report on Teens, Social Media, and Privacy

Interesting report from the From the Pew Internet and American Life Project:

Teens are sharing more information about themselves on their social media profiles than they did when we last surveyed in 2006:

  • 91% post a photo of themselves, up from 79% in 2006.
  • 71% post their school name, up from 49%.
  • 71% post the city or town where they live, up from 61%.
  • 53% post their email address, up from 29%.
  • 20% post their cell phone number, up from 2%.

60% of teen Facebook users set their Facebook profiles to private (friends only), and most report high levels of confidence in their ability to manage their settings.

danah boyd points out something interesting in the data:

My favorite finding of Pew’s is that 58% of teens cloak their messages either through inside jokes or other obscure references, with more older teens (62%) engaging in this practice than younger teens (46%)….

While adults are often anxious about shared data that might be used by government agencies, advertisers, or evil older men, teens are much more attentive to those who hold immediate power over them—parents, teachers, college admissions officers, army recruiters, etc. To adults, services like Facebook that may seem “private” because you can use privacy tools, but they don’t feel that way to youth who feel like their privacy is invaded on a daily basis. (This, btw, is part of why teens feel like Twitter is more intimate than Facebook. And why you see data like Pew’s that show that teens on Facebook have, on average 300 friends while, on Twitter, they have 79 friends.) Most teens aren’t worried about strangers; they’re worried about getting in trouble.

Over the last few years, I’ve watched as teens have given up on controlling access to content. It’s too hard, too frustrating, and technology simply can’t fix the power issues. Instead, what they’ve been doing is focusing on controlling access to meaning. A comment might look like it means one thing, when in fact it means something quite different. By cloaking their accessible content, teens reclaim power over those who they know who are surveilling them. This practice is still only really emerging en masse, so I was delighted that Pew could put numbers to it. I should note that, as Instagram grows, I’m seeing more and more of this. A picture of a donut may not be about a donut. While adults worry about how teens’ demographic data might be used, teens are becoming much more savvy at finding ways to encode their content and achieve privacy in public.

Posted on May 24, 2013 at 8:40 AM18 Comments


kevin May 24, 2013 10:05 AM

The question of course, is whether privacy-by-obfuscation will prove effective in the long run. I think not.

NobodySpecial May 24, 2013 10:05 AM

In other words American teens are more concerned by schools were they are random stop+searched by armed security guards looking for hay fever medicine because of the schools zero-tolerance policy.
About having the 82nd airborne descend on them for making a joke about farting that included the words “blowing one off”.
About 100% surveillance of them through CCTV, RFID, phone location and credit card use being shared between stores and the police without a warrant.

Than they are about some stranger seeing a picture of them on facebook?

Perhaps the voting age should be limited to <18?

SJ May 24, 2013 10:12 AM

If “social media” means “the popular one with the Blue theme, the Face, and the Book”, then “social media” overtly requests the high school that they attend. (Or, in my case, attended more than a decade ago.)

Reputedly to help the user connect with other students/alumni of said school.

Same with place of birth and current home.

However, that same social media platform does allow users to hide their email behind “”.

I don’t think it sets default-permissions to “hide from non-friends”.

Petréa Mitchell May 24, 2013 10:43 AM

What danah boyd is talking about sounds just like how Chinese users of social media have adjusted to constant government censorship: when a word or topic is banned, it’s still possible to talk about the issue to some extent with heavy use of euphemisms and homonyms.

J.M. Porup May 24, 2013 11:52 AM

In Communist bloc countries this was called “sniping from cover”.

The secret police are not going to come and take you away for producing Hamlet with the actors dressed as enzymes and set in the stomach of a cow.

Alex May 24, 2013 1:26 PM

If this was, I’d post this with the headline: [Obvious] Teenagers are self-absorbed and have no common sense.

@NobodySpecial: Don’t negate how much value there is in the information contained in the details of someone’s personal life. Just from what happens at my office, we’ve probably put >15 people in prison from details the electronic data detritus of their social media details which they disclosed. In terms of prison time, I’d say it’s >250+ years. We’re not law enforcement, nor were we looking to put people away. The data came out in the course of our audits.

ProTip: If you’re stealing money from a company, don’t go bragging about the spoils of it on the internet.

left.for.dead May 24, 2013 2:19 PM

“91% post a photo of themselves, up from 79% in 2006.”

Goodbye your chance for undercover careers without facial surgery. :-O

Daniel May 24, 2013 2:59 PM

First, I will simply quote what I said yesterday in the thread about iterative games, “The result is that the touchstone of privacy is no longer isolation but distraction. But some people are better at isolation than distraction. Their genes will tend to be disfavored.”

@Kevin. Distraction doesn’t need to be good in the long-run because in the long-run we are all dead. That is as equally true for games as it is for economics. So long as you can fool enough of the people enough of the time one is golden. How much is enough? If they catch you and kill you or put you in prison it wasn’t enough!

Ask a magician. People figure out the trick sooner or later. Who cares: they already paid the admission fee. The trick to being a successful magician is not stopping people from learning your ploys; it is to keep inventing new tricks.

ronw May 24, 2013 4:11 PM

Every time I look at the details of a Pew report, I’m underwhelmed. The largest part of the survey group was “802 parents and their 802 teens ages 12-17”. Yeah, teenagers participating in a survey with their parents will tell you what they really do.

Dirk Praet May 25, 2013 8:48 PM

Facebook to teens is just like drugs. Unless a (trusted) relative or peer with adequate subject matter knowledge educates them on the issue, chances are that they’re just doing it because everybody else does, while basically most haven’t got the slightest idea of what they’re doing and what the consequences can be. As is the case with all such activities, they’re only concerned to hide what’s going on from parents, teachers and the like. That’s just basic teen behaviour and hardly anything new.

A while ago, I got a very upset phonecall from my sister that her youngest daughter had unfriended her so she could no longer track her. That was quite a bit of laugh. And predictable, for that matter.

aaaa May 27, 2013 7:00 AM

Maybe I’m too young (but still over thirty), but the “not worried about strangers; they’re worried about getting in trouble” risk assessment seems to me just right.

There is little reason to worry about photo, school name, city or cell phone. The worst that can happen if you post your mail is that you will get a lot of spam.

Your opinions, say when you criticize someone with power over you, that can get you in trouble. Even online bullying is way more likely to come from people you know than from strangers.

If the teens are afraid mostly of ” parents, teachers, college admissions officers and army recruiters”, then they are afraid of exactly those people who can hurt them.

How many teenagers had random predator finding their picture and then tracking them down and attacking them? While possible, it simple does not happen all that often.

What is the chance of school administration overreacting and invoking zero-tolerance rule over non-issue? How likely it is that you will be denied employment cause you have wrong political opinions or listen to music considered dumb by HR?

Now, I could see those two happen.

NZ May 27, 2013 10:15 AM

Perhaps I am just too old, but I have to ask: what hidden meanings may a picture of a donut have?

Clive Robinson May 27, 2013 12:42 PM

@ NZ,

    I have to ask: what hidden meanings may a picture of a donut have?

Well first you need to identify two things,

1, The type of donut.
2, Which culture it has meaning too.

For instance to my surprise in certain parts of Maryland the fried dough sweetment is known as a “Kinkling” and as many know in parts of Europe they are known as Berliner or Berliner Boll. And if you remember some were amused by Presedent Kenedy saying he was a Berliner (in German). For those in Berlin he was correct for other parts of Europe he was in effect claiming to be a donut…

Alternativly you could search the internet…

Nick P May 27, 2013 1:37 PM

@ NZ

“I have to ask: what hidden meanings may a picture of a donut have?”

You know, you could probably hide a QR code or something in a donut. Intentional patterns of discoloration in the picture could communicate a message. If the messages were integer-simple, then it’s mere position or angle could communicate a set of numbers. Quite a few possibilities in a donut.

So far, though, donut-free methods of communication have made more sense. 😉

Dirk Praet May 27, 2013 7:41 PM

@ aaaa

How many teenagers had random predator finding their picture and then tracking them down and attacking them? While possible, it simple does not happen all that often.

Not really. Dating-focused, “social discovery website” Badoo is even accused of doing this systematically. It happened to a friend of mine who was alerted by someone else over a Badoo profile with her name but an unknown email address featuring a number of holiday pictures of herself from her Facebook account. We had to go through great lengths to have it suppressed.

From Wikipedia: “Many users complain they were signed up without their consent on Badoo and that it sends spam emails to all of their contacts without their permission telling them their friend has left you a message … Additionally Badoo generates users by harvesting information posted by users on other social networking sites, without these users consent. Many users of Okcupid will find their profiles have been cloned on Badoo without their consent and are freely accessible through an internet search … Users who have never signed up for a profile report difficulty or impossibility of deleting that profile from Badoo.”

@ NZ

what hidden meanings may a picture of a donut have?

1) Use your imagination. It’s a thing with a hole in it. And you can eat it.
2) Think steganography. Not all teenagers are as dumb as they act like. It takes only one smart uncle in the family educating his niece on how to hide messages in a picture, and next thing you know the entire class and their network pick up on it.

NZ May 28, 2013 7:20 AM

I admit that the only tow ideas I have are: (i) food, (ii) Android 1.6. Not that it is really important, anyway…

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