Teens, sharing and the return of privacy

Image: Death to the Stock Photo

Rob Callender writes: Traditionally, the teen years have been a time of insecurity, trial and error. Mistakes are made and secrets kept. Although a certain level of privacy during the teen years has always been a lifestage imperative, the digital age looked as if it would challenge that history. Privacy was dead, or so it was claimed. We now suspect that the Millennial years witnessed an “oversharing bubble” that undervalued the importance of privacy to teens. What’s more, we suspect that the value of privacy is now reverting to its long-term norm.


Millennials’ teen years coincided with the cultural ascent of Facebook — a platform that promised to test the concept of privacy as a social custom. Facebook’s goal was an ambitious one, and truth be told, some at The Futures Company were a bit surprised by Millennials’ enthusiastic compliance. Was it the shock of the new? The appeal of self-promotion to a generation that seemed to believe celebrity was always just one lucky break away? A powerful combination of the two? Whatever the cause, Millennials eagerly shared a depth and breadth of information to the world that seemed out of character, even unwise, for the teen years.


Recently, however, there’s been a change in trend. Many young people seem increasingly protective of their privacy, and while Millennials still love Facebook, young people are moving away from Facebook to smaller, more curated, more anonymous or closed-circuit options. According to a Bloomberg article that describes the phenomenon,

“compared with Twitter or Facebook, Snapchat can seem almost aggressively user-unfriendly. If you’re new to the app and looking for posts by your kid [or] your boyfriend… good luck. It’s hard to find somebody without knowing his or her screen name. This is by design.”
Source: TRU Youth Monitor, The Futures Company, 2016
Source: TRU Youth Monitor, The Futures Company, 2016

A 2015 Pew survey found that 40% of parents said they talk to their 13- to 17-year-olds “frequently” about what’s appropriate to share online; another 42% of parents said they had such discussions “occasionally.”

Perhaps in response to teens’ newfound reticence, Facebook has changed its terms of service to add — not restrict — privacy. And Centennial teens are even telling their parents to cool it, requesting parents ask their children’s permission before posting about them on social media. And although The Futures Company advanced this pro-privacy argument when it was akin to heresy, it’s since been picked up by a growing chorus of observers. Sure, there’s plenty of data out there suggesting that young people aren’t overly concerned about their privacy. But we wonder how much of this confuses Centennials’ understanding that data will be released with an eagerness that it should be released.

To learn more, we asked our Youth Streetscapers in the US whether they believe less is really more in terms of online information sharing. The overwhelming majority say they’re less forthcoming — and more thoughtful about what they post — than they used to be.

Javier, 20, North Carolina: I used to post anything on Twitter and Facebook. At 18, an employer punished me for sharing unprofessionally on Twitter. I believed I solved the problem by turning Twitter from “public” to “private,” so only people I allowed could see my content. However, my employer warned me anyone could photograph a post and share it on the internet. At first, the idea seemed paranoid and unrealistic, but I later converted.
Kailee, 16, Philadelphia: I think a lot about what I post. Employers and colleges go through Facebook and Twitter now, and it is important to not post anything on social media that you don’t want a potential employer to see. I think it is also important for family; you don’t want your family members to see something that is rude or offensive.
Matt, 24, Los Angeles: I think pretty carefully about what I post on Facebook. I think a lot of times things can be taken out of context and misconstrued, and that is why you need to be careful of what you post since there isn’t a lot of “context” to go with it. Such considerations involve a great deal of internal debate over dueling impulses: their desire for self-expression and their interest in limiting unwelcome public scrutiny. Many tell us their preferred solution is to present a curated persona that offers just enough of the right kind of information.
Steffie, 18, Chicago: I always keep my posts genuine — I would never post or share something that I don’t mean or agree with. However, I do recognize that the “me” that appears on social media is a carefully constructed version of myself.
Camryn, 16, Minneapolis: I try to maintain a balance between my “real self” and my public persona, as there are certain things I want to keep private. I think social media is best when it is a more general format, rather than a place to unload every single detail about yourself. When it comes to relationships, political opinions, and very emotional situations, those are cases where social media is not the place for me to share, personally.
Dom, 23, New York: I understand that everything posted on social media is being judged by those who see it — which is the point of the platforms. I want people to view my posts and myself as a positive, intelligent person with a sense of humor and I only post things that reflect that.

Escaping the interlopers

Many brands have built successful youth-outreach efforts by identifying their target’s top interests, as self-reported online. If — as looks likely — young people are becoming more reticent about personal details, brands must be prepared for a leaner mix of such personal information. As young people cut back on the amount they post, they judge participation on various platforms based on their own personal privacy considerations and content preferences. This fragmentation stems from an invasion of interlopers into what young people once considered “private space.” (Remember that Facebook membership once required verification of a college email account.)

As young people change their sharing habits, they’re doing so to escape the parents, grandparents, and, yes, brands that followed them online.
Emily, 21, New Orleans: On Twitter, I feel as though it’s a feed cluttered with people’s everyday thoughts and a lot of trying to prove you are witty or funny through how you manipulate your words… In general, I’m trying to slowly detach myself from social media (excluding Pinterest) and not get too caught up in posting items and worry about what others will think of my posts.
Javier, 20, North Carolina: Anonymous and ethereal apps such as Snapchat, Secret, Yik Yak and others have been attracting my friends with the impression of a lesser chance of consequence. Interestingly, my 12-year-old brother loves Snapchat because my mother will never catch punishable content on it.

Is all of this a new paradigm? Probably not. But it could be a return to the classic one. After years of reflexively embracing new, liberating innovations, we suspect young people are beginning to discover why the old guardrails were there in the first place.

Rob Callender is Director of Youth Insights at The Futures Company.

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