Young People and Social Media: Privacy vs Openness

by Toni Bruce

I don’t think there is any question that young people today,have flocked to social media like moths to a flame, particularly in industrialised countries.  Data from Facebook and YouTube usage reports, and a wide range of surveys of Internet use clearly demonstrate the place of social media and the Internet in the lives of young (and not so young) people today.

What I find interesting is the divergent ways in which researchers (and teachers and the public) understand social media.  Views tend to oscillate between two extremes, as I suggest in the following continuum.

Screen Shot 2015-05-12 at 2.25.25 pmAt one end is the protectionist stance that sees social media as a danger to the safety (physical and emotional) of young people (see Abels Tobias, 2006; Kellner & Share, 2005; Redmond, 2012). In this view, which is most common in the United States, social media (and often popular media in general) is seen as circulating harmful messages that support dominant ideologies against which young people need to be protected, if not innoculated against. The role of the teacher is to help young people interpret, deconstruct and resist media messages. Fears of cyberbullying, stalking, and safety dominate this perspective.  Young people, especially young children are conceptualised as unsuspecting targets of propaganda and unable to understand the risks of engaging online (thus the need for protection).

At the other end is the view that young people are active, (potentially) critical consumers and producers. The focus in this perspective is on empowerment, creativity and pleasure (which was previously seen as something to be “deeply suspected”). However, even in this view, it is clear that young people need media education in order to understand the bigger picture of their media production and consumption.  Theresa Redmond (2012) has argued for a pedagogy of critical enjoyment, in which teachers engage with media that students are already immersed in, with the aim of helping them to become critically aware and develop language and a framework within which to think and talk about media and their experiences.  At the same time, the aim is to value the pleasure they gain from social and other media, and to recognise the multitude of responses that different young people might have to different kinds of media.

In between, educators and researchers take other positions such as: seeing media education as a form of developing cognitive thinking and intellectual outcomes related to young people as active, complex audiences with their own tastes and the ability to form their own responses to a range of media texts; focusing on teaching young people how to appreciate the aesthetics of media texts, an approach that typically privileges the teacher’s rather than the student’s perspective and preferences; and critical media literacy which is a form of social justice or critical pedagogy that aims to each students to  advocate for social, political, racial, gender and other forms of equality through seeing from the standpoint of marginalised groups and questioning power relations.

At both ends of the continuum, education about topics such as who controls the media, with what purpose and what benefits (e.g., Facebook) are seen as important.  Understanding the ways in which media content can influence how we think, behave and interact with others is another important area of learning.  Finally, one of the most fraught issues from an education perspective seems to be the issue of privacy versus openness online.

Educators worry about issues of privacy and the amount that teens (and even the younger age group of tweens) are willing to reveal online.  Cyber-safety is a major concern and becomes highly visible when the mainstream media circulate tragic stories of bullying and suicide, for example. Helping children and teens understand what happens to their online information, how to ‘behave’ online (e.g., communication conventions, laws), and the effects and longer-term implications of posting certain kinds of posts or images are all topics that educators and researchers worry about.

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Leaning towards the active, critical users end of the continuum, Amanda Lenhart and Mary Madden investigated how teens managed their online identities and personal information on social media.

Their conclusion was that most teenagers took steps to protect themselves from risk, at least the most obvious kinds.  They also actively managed their identities and personal information.  Lenhart and Madden described young people as performing “a balancing act between keeping some important pieces of information confined to their network of trusted friends and, at the same time, participating in a new, exciting process of creating content for their profile and making new friends” (pp. i-ii).  As well, they found that most teens differentiated between information that was acceptable or desirable to share and other information that needed to be protected. Most teens were online and the percentage has increased over time from 73% in the 2000 study, to 87% in the 2004 research and 93% in 2006. Older teens (high school) use the internet more.

Their results came from a survey of a representative sample of 935 pairs of teens (12-17) and their parents, and a series of focus groups in the USA in 2006.  The results revealed some potential risks – 32% of those online and 43% of those who use social media had been contacted online by strangers. The image of how teens respond to contacts from strangers (below) comes from Lenhart and Madden (2007, p. 34).

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Two-thirds ignored or deleted the contact while 21% followed up by asking for more information from the person contacting them. Only 7% reported being scared or uncomfortable after being contacted by a stranger online. As well, 17% of online teens and 31% of social media users had ‘friends’ in their social media network whom they had never met, and it was older boys (60%) who were most likely to use social networking sites to make new friends. Older teens were also more likely than younger teens to post more personal information in a more public manner.

Parents were actively involved in monitoring their children’s access, including 65% who check up on teens after they go online, 53% of parents who use filtering software, and 45% who have monitoring software that records what teens are doing online.  More parents (85%) report having rules around internet use and the amount of personal information their children can share online than they have restrictions on television shows (75%), video games (65%).

So what do teens do in the social media space?  The image below gives a snapshot of their results (Lenhart & Madden, 2007, p. 13).

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At the other end of the spectrum is US researcher Susan Barnes’ (2006) article, The Privacy Paradox

She summarises some of the key concerns about privacy in her opening paragraph where she describes communities as “outraged” and concerns about privacy issues as an “uproar”:

  • Teenagers will freely give up personal information to join social networks on the Internet. Afterwards, they are surprised when their parents read their journals. Communities are outraged by the personal information posted by young people online and colleges keep track of student activities on and off campus. The posting of personal information by teens and students has consequences” (Barnes, 2006, para. 1)

The terminology in Barnes’ article seems to me to clearly represent a protectionist stance.  For example, she describes the issue as “the growing privacy problem”, discusses school actions to “protect the safety of young individuals in social networking”, paints a picture of teenagers revealing personal information that “attracts sexual predators”, and explains that “protection of teens is a parental responsibility”.  She gives examples of schools that – rather than engaging with social media as an important area of education – take actions such as contacting parents, banning blogs, and refusing to let students use school e-mail addresses to register for social networking sites. Universities have suspended teams and student athletes for posting inappropriate images.

However, where Barnes differs from some other researchers is in her suggested wrap-around response involving social, technical and legal solutions.  She argues that “the education of teens and their parents to the growing privacy problem will require an educational effort that involves schools, social networking organizations, and government agencies”.  She believes schools have an important and active role to play in educating students “about the proper and improper use of the Internet”.

So what can we learn from this research?  First, there are a lot of ways of thinking about social media. Secondly, how we conceptualise the relationship between young people and social media will directly influence what we focus on – safety or enjoyment, for example.  Although schools, and often parents, tend towards the more conservative, protectionist, end of the continuum, this is not the only option.  And, in light of the level of involvement of young people with social media, it may not be the best pedagogical starting point, if media education is to create well-rounded, knowledgeable, active, citizens.


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