Understanding Teens, Privacy, and Online Identity

Today’s teens are easily the most private and reputation-focused of the age groups. Try getting a sixteen year old to explain their day as more than “fine” – it’s about as challenging as convincing them to leave for school in the fifth outfit they’ve tried on.

So why is it that as soon as a teen powers-on his or her device, they aren’t lost for words?

How does someone who merely grumbles when asked about school, send 60-80 text messages a day to his or her friends? How can someone who cares so much about how they look, make mistakes on social media that can affect their reputation not only online, but offline as well?

It’s ironic, I know.

But however huge the irony may be, there are some important things parents need to understand when it comes to connected teens and privacy. What’s more, there are some important conversations parents can have to help encourage teens to exercise the same discretion they use offline, online too.

Teens Are Thinking About Online Privacy

Did you know that three in four teens report being very or somewhat concerned about their personal information being harmed online? Yet, only 33% of teens actually report using privacy settings for some of their online accounts?

Clearly, there’s a disconnect here.

Teens are concerned about the privacy of their personal information – addresses, phone numbers, and other identifying details – but don’t seem to fit social interactions, reputation, or self-image in the “information people can learn about me online” category.

Teens Live Online

For teens, socializing online is no different than hanging out in the schoolyard was for us when we were growing up.

Many teens are struggling with the things they’ve always struggled with – learning how to fit in, navigating statuses and social hierarchies, and testing the limits of power and authority.

The difference today is that their struggles and lessons are panning out in very public, sometimes permanent, places. And many teens don’t really realize or think about the publicness or potential permanence of it all.

Talking to Teens about Privacy and Online Identity

As parents, it’s important not to fear technology or to discourage this critical part of youth development.
Instead, let’s have conversations with them about the importance of realizing that just because it’s personal and amongst friends, doesn’t mean it stays personal or amongst friends.

Help them develop strategies for how they will balance being social and having fun, with being private and not sharing too much.

Just as they are calculating with what they tell you at the dinner table, they can learn to be discrete and cognizant before they hit ‘send’ or ‘post’ online.

Published on: December 03, 2013
About the Author
Photo of Sarah Hoffman

Sarah is the Project Administrator at the Family Online Safety Institute. She helps run FOSI’s Platform for Good (PfG) and writes and develops many of the campaigns and blogs featured on the APlatormforGood.org.

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