Facebook & privacy - research shows approaches that might help young people
Young people do, and they might just care about privacy more than the adults who care for them. That's what I pick up (with all caveats r.e. my reading between lines as well as on them) from the fascinating research on late teens and privacy that danah boyd has published with Estzter Hargittai:
Overall, our data show that far from being nonchalant and unconcerned about privacy matters, the majority of young adult users of Facebook are engaged with managing their privacy settings on the site at least to some extent...
...Based on data collected in early Fall 2009, Pew found that 71 percent of the 18–29–year–old social network site users they surveyed reported changing their privacy settings while only 62 percent of those 30–49 and 55 percent of those between the ages of 50–64 had. While Pew’s practice–oriented data do not measure youth’s attitudes towards privacy settings, the findings do suggest that younger users are conscious enough of privacy issues to take measures to manage which parts of their profiles are accessible.
While the paper is concerned with students in higher education, who have by now left the high school nest, I think there are some conclusions that we could work backwards into high school and even primary school, given that many in late Primary / Elementary are already experimenting with Facebook.
Above all, I'm increasingly aware of how little research we have in Scotland, in the UK and further afield into how young people approach social networking in our countries. Most of what teachers and school-based decision-makers here see is based on "assumptions that all users have a uniform approach to the site and how their accounts are set up are incorrect [leaving] certain user populations especially vulnerable."
I've also observed a marginalisation of any institutional action around how we teach youngsters to use social networking sites effectively in a schooling setting, with the shield of school intranets and virtual learning environments as "safe internets" abounding since 2006 (about the same time Facebook went public).
Notable in the report are some clues as to how we should approach our discussions and learning opportunities around Facebook with young people. Traditionally, in the UK at least, fear has been used as the number one blunt instrument to get young people thinking about privacy. CEOP (the "chop shop") are the UK agency responsible for chasing up and prosecuting instances where children's protection is compromised, yet their voice of "stranger danger" vastly overpowers those that point out the relatively larger benefits of taking some measured risks online.
Let's consider this notion first, as an adult. As an adult running his own company, but also as someone who wants to learn from other's experiences, I have learned and earned more from publishing my mobile phone number (it's +44 791 992 1830) and a safe contact address (i.e. not my home) as well as my general location (Edinburgh, but also other places I might end up day by day through the Dopplr platform).
As a student, what are the opportunities of sharing, though almost definitely not sharing a mobile number? Well, by knowing roughly which network you are part of it helps friends of friends you might socialise or have socialised with outside the structured social spaces one inhabits (school, home life, cliques) to find you and strike up a longer friendship than a happenstance encounter on vacation, at the weekend outing or foreign school exchange. Just an example, of course, which could just as easily have been in the role of Facebook in helping youngsters communicate around their homework or project work of an evening, or the role parents would like Facebook to play in communicating more between school, teacher, students and parents, or the role it might play in sharing learning of five year olds.
Julie Cunningham outlines the hypocrisy of which we're guilty when isolating online privacy in schools without as much effort deemed worth the while offline.
But these arguments, as I say, are all too often drowned out by the far more conservative (and therefore far easier to condone and express in public) attitudes that one should try to limit one's public sharing as much as possible, sharing only with those we know we know we know, the implication having been that we've met them face-to-face. Government officials request features that sound great, like the Facebook panic button, but which actually create more problems for those who really need help. And the argument that employers will not want to see your real life shenanigans online is just too distant a worry for most teens and tweens. That's just not the way the online world works when these youngsters hit late teen-hood and adulthood. We need to educate, not stipulate.
What approaches might work for increasing awareness of privacy management?
One simple approach to helping youngsters get an even better handle on how to manipulate their privacy settings in the way that will best work for them is just to talk about privacy settings. When Facebook prompted their own users to think about their privacy settings with a welcome screen message:
35 percent of users who had never before edited their settings did so when prompted. Facebook used these data to highlight that more people engaged with Facebook privacy settings than the industry average of 5–10 percent (E. Boyd, 2010).
We also learn that “a student is significantly more likely to have a private profile if (1) the student’s friends, and especially roommates, have private profiles; (2) the student is more active on Facebook; (3) the student is female; and (4) the student generally prefers music that is relatively popular (high mean) and only music that is relatively popular (low SD).” Therefore, if we can get friendship groups rather than class groups in school to learn together about these principles,we might stand a better chance of creating a culture of understanding about privacy.
What also shines through this report is that more frequent users of Facebook change their provacy settings more often, engaging more with the concepts of privacy the site throws up:
The main reason we heartily discourage young people from engaging with those they know they know is fear: fear of stalking, bullying or making friends with someone you've never met face to face. boyd points out the shortfall of 'fear' as a tactic for instructing media literacy in youngsters:
While fear may be an effective technique for prompting the development of skills, the long–term results may not be ideal. The culture of fear tends to center on marginalized populations and is often used as a tool for continued oppression and as a mechanism for restricting access to public spaces and public discourse (Glassner, 1999; Valentine, 2004; Vance, 1984). To the degree that women are taught that privacy is simply a solution to a safety issue, they are deprived of the opportunities to explore the potential advantages of engaging in public and the right to choose which privacy preferences and corresponding privacy settings on sites like Facebook serve their needs best. For example, many young people value the opportunities to participate in communities of interest or peer–based production (Ito, et al., 2009). These communities support a wide variety of public practices — they serve as a distribution channel for participants to share artistic creations or promote their bands; they provide infrastructure for participants to learn about their practice or develop new skills; and, they provide a cohort for collaboration. In interviewing teens, boyd (2008) found that some girls who wanted to participate in these public forums were too scared to do so. Fear paralyzed some girls, limiting their engagement with some of the “geeking out” communities that Ito and her colleagues (2009) highlight. Furthermore, by adopting and promoting a gender–differentiated narrative that focuses on women’s safety matters, core issues about privacy that concern both men and women get overlooked. While our data do not allow a direct examination of these questions, future work should examine the role that safety rhetorics and fear play in online participation and practices.
So what are those core issues about privacy that we might be overlooking in our quest to fear youngsters into a media literate approach to networking?