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Will Facebook change lead to an erosion of privacy rights for teens?

October 17, 2013 at 12:00 AM EST
Privacy settings on Facebook will now allow users aged 13-17 to share posts with people outside their friend network. Will the change help teens express themselves or lead to problems like cyberbullying? Hari Sreenivasan speaks with Stephen Balkam of the Family Online Safety Institute and Jim Steyer of Common Sense Media.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: We take a closer look now at Facebook’s decision to relax rules about what teens can share online. The changes mean that teens between 13 and 17 years old could share whatever they posted with the general public if they wish to do so. But Facebook also said that it would post two reminders, like this one, to make sure that teens were aware of the risks of posting information.

The move has raised concerns anew about privacy online.

Hari Sreenivasan has our conversation.

HARI SREENIVASAN: And, for that, we turn to Stephen Balkam of the Family Online Safety Institute, a group representing major players in the tech industry. He’s a member of Facebook’s Safety Advisory Board. And Jim Steyer, founder and CEO of Common Sense Media, a not-for-profit group that studies the impact of technology on kids.

So, Jim Steyer, let me start with you.

What’s your concern about these changes?

JIM STEYER, Common Sense Media: Well, Facebook’s privacy policies are sort of like the weather. They’re constantly changing. That’s about the only thing you can be sure of.

And as the parent of four and running the biggest kids media group in the country, you know that these privacy policies are going to confuse parents, but most of all they’re going to continue to erode some of the privacy rights of children and teens who are on Facebook.

We really particularly are concerned that, in many cases, kids will self-reveal before they self-reflect, put out information that can be damaging to them, can be bullying to others. And in a public context, the consequences can be bigger.

So we have a lot of concerns about this latest set of changes to the privacy policies at Facebook.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Stephen Balkam, what about those reservations?

STEPHEN BALKAM, Family Online Safety Institute: Well, actually, the first thing to be said is that we applaud Facebook’s changes to default to friends only for teenagers. This is something we have been talking to them about for quite some time, and so we actually think that’s going to add to the safety and privacy of teenagers.

The other change regarding allowing teens to post publicly, I think that you have to consider, do teenagers have any free expression rights? Let’s take Malala, the 16-year-old Pakistani girl who was shot by the Taliban. I mean, she has created a global phenomenon and campaign, but up until now, has not been able to do that on Facebook.

So, actually, I think, in some ways, this is a very good step.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Jim Steyer, isn’t this the type of transparency that privacy groups have tried to advocate for and ask Facebook for?

JIM STEYER: No, definitely not. I wouldn’t — I wouldn’t not say that at all, Hari.

I think what this really is, is primarily an effort to monetize the personal information of teenagers. The public nature of the posts that’s now permitted will allow Facebook to actually use those in sponsored stories, which are the most lucrative form of advertising, when you talk about the material that children and teens — remember, one of the big concerns that privacy advocates have with Facebook is that there are millions of kids under the age of 13 who are also on Facebook.

And they don’t have the impulse control as children or as teens to think through what they’re going to post. So while Stephen’s right there can be very good usage of public postings like Malala, the far more frequent kind of public posting can be things that can be damning to kids’ reputations, that can actually be forms of cyber-bullying.

And, again, teens often time self-reveal before they self-reflect. So in the broader scheme of privacy, while we do appreciate the fact that kids do need a voice — and I’m a First Amendment law professor at Stanford, so I really like that — in general, this is an erosion of privacy for kids and teens that privacy advocates I think in general are pretty concerned about.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Stephen Balkam, I want to get to the cyber-bullying in a minute, but something that Jim said, basically, it’s that old adage , if you can’t see the product, you are the product. Are these changes primarily so that Facebook can make more money? Because a lot of parents are already very tenuous about letting their kids on social networks.

And I think there’s a high creep factor when they talk about the content that these students are — these children are generating actually selling product.

STEPHEN BALKAM: Well, everything that I have read, this has not changed at all the advertising towards children or adults, for that matter.

The sponsored stories will still be just sent to friends only. So there’s no change in the advertising side. And if there is further down the road, we will be the first to raise a red flag. You know, I think it’s important to also recognize that Facebook has incorporated teachable moments as a child chooses a public setting to send out their posts and will be reminded on several occasions.

So they have gone well beyond what many other social networks are doing at the moment.

HARI SREENIVASAN: So, Stephen Balkam, I want to come — I want to stick with you for a second. But what Jim Steyer said about cyber-bullying is also kind of interesting to us. As we make this content across social networks more permanent and perhaps more searchable, doesn’t that enable other teens to start using that content in perhaps a campaign on cyber-bullying, just like a Procter & Gamble could use that — that little quote to help sell bleach?

STEPHEN BALKAM:  We certainly need a national dialogue and a national campaign on cyber-bullying and bullying more generally.

I think that we all have to think before we post. I would also say that Facebook and YouTube and Google+ already provide delete buttons, by the way, for stuff that people put out there, kids themselves that they would prefer to retract. Having said that, sure, I mean, if you put stuff out there, you have to be aware that it can be replicated and it can be sent anywhere on the Internet.

So we all have to raise our awareness of how we use digital media.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Jim Steyer, how about that notion of some semblance of personal responsibility here? Nobody is forcing you to join these social networks. You can perhaps keep your child off of one until a certain age if you’re incredibly good at policing them.

JIM STEYER: It’s tough, I can tell you, as the dad of four.

You know, and, of course, personal responsibility does matter. You know, and at Common Sense, we are pioneers in the field of teaching kids digital literacy and citizenship. But the bottom line is pretty clear. Kids have much less impulse control than parents do, and that’s true for children as well as teens, millions and millions of whom are on Facebook.

So the downside risks here are very substantial, and the more public this becomes and the more that kids are encouraged to be public by Facebook, primarily, in our opinion, for monetization reasons, the more likelihood of significant consequences and damages, in which cyber-bullying is one of the big ones.

And that is something that is a phenomenon that every parent, every school, and every community in this country is aware of. And so, while Facebook does — has made some pop-up reminders now, which I think is a positive thing — Stephen mentioned those — in general, this is a very troubling trend.

And the bottom line is, it’s being driven by a commercial imperative at the tech industry. It’s not being driven by the best interests of children and teens, period.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Jim Steyer, Stephen Balkam, thanks so much for your time.

STEPHEN BALKAM: Thank you.

JIM STEYER: Thanks for having us.