Creative Ways Teens Maintain Social Privacy with Social Media

August 29, 2012

PROJECTS: The Digital Edge


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I recently read an article about teens posting random photos to Instagram so they and their friends can chat “under the radar” via the comments feature. Based on the time I’ve spent working with teens this does not surprise me at all. Teens are accustomed to their parents reading their text messages or social media, therefore they utilize different spaces that are unlikely to be discovered by adults. This certainly is not new. Teens of all generations have likely always found secret ways to communicate with each other. My friends and I had secret notebooks we would share, we’d write notes in code, and create secret names for people so we could discuss them in private. Teens’ desire to achieve privacy (especially from prying adults) is not new, however what has changed is the degree of visibility. When I was a teen it wasn’t difficult to hide a notebook or scribbled notes from my parents and other friends. Today, teens prefer to communicate via mobile phones, social media, and instant messenger; this renders their communication practices more public and visible. 

Research makes evident that more and more parents are monitoring their children’s mobile and social media behaviors. For example, data from 2011 Pew Internet & American Life project shows that 61% of teens who use social media believe their parents have checked their profiles. There are different opinions about the most appropriate ways to surveil young people’s online practices, nonetheless, teens are increasingly aware that their online and mobile communication behaviors are likely to be monitored. This, in turn, motivates teens to develop creative ways to manage their privacy. For example, as danah boyd and Alice Marwick have found, some teens communicate in coded language on social networking sites so that only those “in the know” can decipher meaning.

Our research team spent eight months conducting ethnographic research with teens at a large, ethnically diverse, low-income, public high school in Texas. During that time we learned a lot about teens’ digital communication practices. I was continually impressed by the creative, agentive, and ingenious ways teens managed their social privacy, while still maintaining robust peer networks via digital communication. In the context of personal relationships, teens’ privacy tactics reveal the diverse and complex ways in which teens acknowledge risk, define privacy, employ protection practices, and negotiate dynamic social norms and boundaries.

I have found that social norms and a feeling of constant surveillance leave many teens feeling vulnerable with regard to social media use. Not only are teens concerned about adult and peer surveillance, but some teens are resistant to social norms that encourage them to converge social contexts and identities (as is often the case on Facebook). Rather than negotiating liminal boundaries between what is and is not socially acceptable to share on spaces such as Facebook, the teens I met maintained privacy by disclosing personal information in alternative spaces, such as Tumblr and Twitter. Facebook encourages teens to friend everyone they know and broadcast information to their entire network. However, the norms that have developed around Tumblr and Twitter allow for more privacy and control. As such, I view teens’ use of  alternative social media as spatial tactics intended to resist social norms, which encourage the collapse of social contexts, identity, and oversharing. For some teens, the use of Tumblr, Twitter, and Instagram is more than  “the next new thing”, but can be interpreted as deliberate attempt to manage social privacy.

For example, one of the teens in our study shared a secret Tumblr with her boyfriend. Only she and her boyfriend had the URL to their site; they could leave messages and images for each other without worrying their friends or parents would read them. She and her friends were bothered by romantic couples who publicly performed their relationship on Facebook; however Tumblr afforded intimacy, communication, and privacy in a more socially acceptable way. As such, teens were very protective of their Tumblr pages. One sixteen year old told me, “Everyone keeps their Tumblr private usually because they post, like actually what they’re going through or what they feel.  Nobody really wants the people from our school to know because then that’s how rumors start.  That’s how things get out of hand, so I think that’s why we keep it really private.”

In other instances social norms dictated that certain spaces were “allowed” to be used in more private and intimate ways. For example, some teens used Twitter as a way to express more intimate thoughts and conversations without feeling as though they were broadcasting to their entire school. They created user names that did not easily link their accounts to their offline identities and they only shared their user names with select friends. While many participants acknowledged that their parents and peers looked at their Facebook profiles, many felt they were able to keep their Twitter and Tumblr private from unwanted audiences. As such, social norms dictate that some social media spaces afford more privacy than others. Many of the teens I got to know expressed a desire to communicate with select peers or even strangers via social media, but they simultaneously found ways to maintain privacy. These practices can be viewed as deliberate tactics, which are intended to resist emerging social norms that threaten teens’ perception of social privacy. 

This is significant because it reveals the ways that teens themselves conceptualize privacy, as well as the creative ways they negotiate privacy via spatial tactics. The covert and secret ways young people communicate via digital media should not in and of itself be alarming, nor does it mean they are necessarily hiding something – rather, they are striving to create and control robust and autonomous peer networks. I think it is important to consider young people’s communicative practices within broader contexts of literacy, privacy, norms, and agency. What can we learn from teens’ social privacy practices? How can social media sites, parents, and policies create spaces that respect teens’ practices and desires for privacy? And how do social norms regulate identity, privacy, and communication? 


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