Growing Up Online
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Their Very Public Private Lives

Teens are sharing personal information online and posting photos and videos of themselves constantly. Is it simply "old teenage culture in a new wrapper" or a real transformation -- and a real danger?

C.J. Pascoe, Ph.D.
Digital Youth Research project, University of California, Berkeley

Adults think kids ... have no concept of privacy whatsoever; it just doesn't exist for them. ... Their willingness to expose themselves seems so foreign to adults. What do you make of it?

I think it depends on the kid. I do think, however, because these kids encountered these social networking sites so much younger, that it feels less foreign to them, or that an expectation of keeping things to themselves or the idea that they might keep some things to themselves seems a lot stranger to them than it does to us. A lot of the kids I talk to keep blogs and put what I think is personal information up online.

... I asked them, "Do you think about the information you put up there? Do you feel scared knowing that someone would know this?" And their answers are, ... "I know other people look at it, and I wouldn't put anything up there that I won't mind somebody else seeing." ... And their sense is that, "Well, what stranger's going to care about this? Who cares? Nobody's going to care that I put this information online except for my friends." And so they just don't have a sense that anybody would actually care what they put up there. And what is public realm for them ... is much more expansive than what adults think belongs to the public. ...

The respondents who really think about what information they're putting out there usually migrate to Facebook, because they can control who sees it -- that either they can put it so everybody sees their sites but not everybody sees their friends, or that only their friends see their site. ...

The compulsion to take pictures, to constantly be recording life and then posting it, what is that?

I think it's old teenage culture in a new wrapper. When you looked at kids in the '70s and the '80s, in the '90s, their lockers [were] covered in pictures. They constantly had the little cameras and were taking pictures of everything and then would come to school after prom and show each other all their pictures. If you ever looked at a high school girl's folder, they would get these sort of clear folders where they'd stick pictures in of everything that had happened.

And so I think that compulsion in some sense is nothing new, because it's all part of that identity work, where they're reflecting back to themselves who they think they are. And I think that's grown even more intense with Hollywood['s] fetishizing of adolescence, where you have the John Hughes movies and all these movies about what high school was supposed to look like. And so kids are constantly trying to line their lives up with these stories of adolescence and these stories of high school, and what digital media has done is given them a more intense way to do this.

Parry Aftab
Executive director,

photo of Aftab

You can be someone who is venting about your boss, thinking that it's no more dangerous than venting to your best friend, and your boss reads about it the next day. It could be that you're bragging about how you can drink more than any person in your sorority or fraternity, and you're applying for a job. It could be that you want a job at MTV, and you're saying that you've only worked for the same person for the last three years ... only to find your MySpace talks about the last four bosses you've had in the last eight months and how they're all creeps.

Those things have ramifications that none of us think about at the time, because we do it at 3:00 in the morning, we do it at midnight, we do it when we're alone. We do it to our computer, and we think we can define who the visitors and viewers and consumers are. And we can't.

Kids seem to recognize this already. Is it something you need to teach? Are you teaching them earlier and earlier? ...

I never worry about the kids who are unsophisticated; they'll always protect themselves because they're afraid. I worry about the kids who think they know it all. I worry about the kids who think they know the rules. I worry about the kids who think they're too smart to get caught because, like any con artist knows, you look for the ones who think they're too smart to get caught, and somebody is going to catch them. ...

I've got law enforcement officers sitting online -- I'm doing training teaching them how to do it -- watching for kids' behaviors in their networks, in their communities. So, who's got a party where they're serving alcohol? Who's got drugs? ... Kids are saying things without realizing that other people are watching. I now say, don't post anything that the admissions adviser and your college internship or job internship or scholarship committee shouldn't be seeing.

A lot of kids are losing positions on sports teams and not getting into the college of their choice because of what they're posting online. ... What they post online stays online forever, so what looks cute when you're 14 may not look as cute when you're 40.

Candice Kelsey
Author, Generation MySpace

photo of kelsey

This is a generation of kids that have been raised on reality TV shows and tabloid television. I find in my students a very feeble sense of privacy. This is a generation of kids that don't really see the value of privacy or are a little cynical about it and see a world where everything is made public and that that's okay. And kids today, I believe, are more interested in if something's entertaining rather than if something is an invasion of their privacy. So if something has entertainment value, it's almost okay, even if it invades their privacy.

I would also have to say that many of the kids today believe that if it makes money, it's okay. So a corporate mindset has really been instilled in a lot of our teenagers. I think the fact that a corporation would be ... harvesting personal information from teenagers so that they can further their product or their profit -- I may find unethical. Teenagers today would say, "Hey, good for them, that's great business."

Evan Skinner
Mother of four teenagers; former president of Chatham High School Parent Teacher Organization

photo of skinner

My fear isn't that I have bad kids; my fear is that my good kids will make a bad decision, one bad judgment and pay for it permanently, whether that's a pedophile, whether that's a stalker, whether that's having an inappropriate photograph on Facebook that's then used as a screening device for college admissions or future employment. Kids learn from making mistakes, but they shouldn't be penalized for those mistakes forever. And the computer -- I mean, somebody once said to me, "If it's on the Net, it's open to anyone. There are no safeguards. Someone can always find everything." ...

Do I think that my kids are having sketchy, inappropriate sharing of communication on Facebook? Yeah, probably, in the same way that I did on the phone, locked in a closet when I was sixteen and living at home. So I do feel that we need to give them a little bit of space. It is their phone; I mean, it is where they share.

But going back to my fears about the permanence of that information, there's a middle ground someplace that I think is tremendously polarizing between parents and kids. I think that kids feel like, "Stay the heck out of this; this is mine; get out, get out, get out." And parents are like, "Let me in, let me in, let me in." And there's hardly any way to get in.

Greg Bukata
Chatham High School graduate, class of 2007

photo of bukata

Let's talk about photos. ... What do people post, and what do you think about it?

Well, it's got its ups and downs. Posting -- I mean, it's great to keep people updated about what you've done. It adds a different element to, say, your weekend. Like, after a big party or something, you can post all the things that happened online, all the pictures, all the people you've met.

But then again, say you post something you don't want other people to see, like ... all these situations going now where people are posting pictures with incriminating things like alcohol in it. People can get caught; people can get kicked out of school. I mean, it's risky, it's really risky when you put pictures on[line].

Anyone can put a picture of you on [Facebook]. Anyone can tag it, and what happens is when you tag a picture, it'll come up and it'll say your name on the picture. ... If they tag a picture, you can go to one of your profiles and it'll show you everyone who has tagged you. And you can go and inspect each picture, and if you don't like it you can pull it off. But if they don't tag it, it's out there for anyone to see. It's risky. ...

Does that worry you?

It does, especially because I'm going to be going off to the military in a couple of weeks, and if they find something incriminating, I could get kicked out. I'm not going to put myself through that, but ... one could be in a lot of trouble with a video or a photo that somebody else put up there without their permission.

How do you know there isn't anything?

I don't. That's the problem. And even if I were to ... sign off and take [down] my account, ... there's still things circulating with my picture on it, and there always will be. I mean, I just got out of another one, MySpace. I totally stopped subscribing to that, and there are going to be pictures of me on MySpace, and they'll probably be there for who knows how long. ...

You seem to have a pretty healthy sense of this and the dangers of it. What about your friends?

I don't think they have the same sense. I mean it's mixed, because I'll have to remind my friends, "Put those cameras away if you don't want any of this going online," and they'll keep forgetting about it. And even afterwards, like on a Sunday night, I'll go through the pictures of my friends and I'll find some things, and I'll report it to my friend. I'll be like, "Are you sure you want this online?"

And they don't really have the sense that I think I do, because they don't have everything being at risk. The school I'm going to is going to be very risky if anything were to surface online, so I don't even take the chance anymore. But a lot of people just going to a regular civilian school, they might think they can take that chance, but really they can't.

Rose Porpora
English teacher, Chatham High School

I've been asking kids if they keep diaries, ... and none of them have a diary. And I thought that was very striking, that whole change in the concept of privacy. I wonder if you've noticed that.

A lot of them have online diaries that everyone can see, so the thoughts that used to be precious to them are now exposed to everyone. And it makes them so vulnerable, it really does. ... I think there has to be some kind of connection to themselves that they don't give away just because it's theirs, they own it. What if they regret saying something about themselves? Or [it] falls into the hands of the wrong person. It's grist for the mill. So I think that's dangerous for them.


Danah Boyd
Berkman Center for Internet & Society, Harvard University

photo of boyd

Privacy is not about just me. Privacy is about control of audience. It's about being able to say, "I want to hang out with these people. These are the people that I trust; this is the audience to hear my speech that I care about, the audience that I trust to tell secrets to." That's what privacy is. And so even though they're in public in some sense, they want this privacy. They want a control over their audience. ...

The idea that Facebook is safer is a fiction that was created by the media hype around all this. ... If you're on MySpace, you have an opportunity to be private. What is private? Private means friends only. It's very simple: Those you've accepted as friends are the only people who can see things. Within Facebook the default is network only, right? Now this is fine, everybody at your high school can see it. Well, if you look at what teenagers doing, they're also participating in a network of their town. Who is in that network? Are these the same trusted communities? You don't know who is in that network. You're actually much more visible by default on Facebook than you are on MySpace. ...

And so there's this perception of safety that isn't necessarily real, and I actually think sets up a dynamic that makes people much more confused. Now that said, it's not possible to be as public on Faceook as you can be on MySpace, but the question is, who is being that public and why? ... One of the goals of being that public is to be visible to everybody, right? And when that's the goal, that's much easier to do on MySpace. It's much easier for a working class kid who thinks that they have talent ... to get noticed on MySpace than it ever will be on Facebook.

Tom Anderson and Chris DeWolfe

photo of anderson and Chris DeWolfe

Tom Anderson: I think that younger people are just not concerned about privacy in the way older people are. I know that ad-targeting has always been a big issue. You'll hear the 40-year-old saying, "Wow, I don't want you to know that I like this or that and you're targeting ads towards me." And younger people say, "I want ads that speak to me." It's a totally different divide when you see people responding to how their information is used online and what they reveal online.

Chris DeWolfe: I think there's also an evolution in social networking. We've always thought that MySpace, for example, is all about choice, so what we've done is we've given our users the choice or the ability to make their profiles private. And I think what you'll see from MySpace is even taking that a step further with the notion that a person's MySpace profile is really their address on the Internet. But in the future it won't just have to be their one-size-fits-all address. It could be their business address which business friends see, their family address which their family friends see, and maybe [one] their friend-friends or party friends, that they may see.

So we believe that it'll get more and more segregated, but there can still be one sort of [main] face identity, but then certain privacy options from there that allow any demographic to communicate ... and express themselves in a really efficient way with everyone.

Autumn Edows
Artist and model

photo of Autumn Edows

When did you start creating your own online images?

When I was about 13, that's when I started getting more into photography. I started out with self-portraits, and I kind of trained myself. And after a while, when I was about 14, that's when I started doing like photo shoots, and my friend Justin, who I actually met off of the Internet and I dated for some time, he was the first person to take pictures of me, actual photographs, and they turned out really nice. I was very surprised. ...

What kind of pictures were they? Where did you put them?

They were pretty much simple, self-portrait-type shots. That was when I started getting into makeup a little bit. So I [would] buy purple eye shadow or something drastic and just take a bunch of photographs and make like a mini-collage, and I'd just upload them on a free Web site. And then I'd send the link to my friends so they could see it, and then that's when I got a bit more praise for it. And I think that that's when people really started to become interested in it a bit more.

People you knew?

Some, yes. Others, mostly people I didn't know, but it was still encouragement, so it still felt good. It felt like I already knew them, and I felt like I didn't need people from the small town to be the ones who cared. As long as someone out there said one good thing, that was enough for me. That made me feel good enough at that point in my life, because ... my self-esteem was pretty much non-existent at that point.

How did they find you?

All over the place. I mean, mostly chat rooms; yeah, I was a chat room junky, just trying to look for someone, anyone. Didn't really care who. Just as long as it wasn't a pervert, obviously, but just somebody to talk to. ...

How many were there?

Oh, god, there were hundreds of people. Literally hundreds, because I was on so many different vanity Web sites that I would attract maybe like 50 people per site. There were people that would read my LiveJournal, and that's where I got a lot of fans from. And then of course I would link on each Web site like, "Here's my journal," which had pictures and my writing and my poetry and all sorts of things.

So that's when it like really got big. I mean, it got to the point where I was on the computer literally all day replying. Like, I would hit the refresh button and there would be 10 more comments. It was crazy, it was so crazy, but I loved it. ... To have somebody support you and not even actually know you was a very empowering feeling.

Being famous, was that something you'd thought about before this, something that you wanted? ...

I just I wanted to be well-known. I guess that really is fame.

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posted january 22, 2008

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