Teenagers and Privacy in the 21st Century

As a teenager, I take a very strong stance in the debate regarding teenagers and privacy in the 21st century. Despite the beliefs held by some adults, we consider privacy to be of great significance and actively seek it, but find it difficult to do so in the current era of surveillance.

Privacy is just as valuable to teenagers today as it was prior to the development of social media, but what does ‘privacy’ mean? For this, I will use danah boyd’s 2014 book “It’s Complicated”, in which she defines privacy as “…a process by which people seek to have control over a social situation by managing impressions, information flows, and context” (boyd, 2014). I will attempt to use this definition to illustrate the ways in which we as teens strive to establish privacy.

It is the mistaken belief of some adults that our willingness to share in public spaces is incompatible with a desire for privacy. Essentially, they assume that we enjoy the attention we receive from posting online, and therefore do not care about or need privacy, when in fact, the opposite is true. There may be a minority of us who enjoy publicising our lives online, but the fact remains that most of us simply do not know how to maintain total privacy without completely isolating ourselves from society, especially in a society where not sharing has worse consequences than doing so. Moreover, social media today operates with a ‘public by default, private through effort’ system whereby making content widely available is much easier than the manipulation of privacy settings to limit visibility. So rather than completely opposing sharing in public spaces, or unnecessarily making the effort to privatise the content we upload, we have adapted to achieve privacy within the framework of these spaces.

A method that some of us employ to achieve privacy is social steganography. This refers to the use of linguistic and cultural tools to encode messages that are functionally accessible but simultaneously meaningless (boyd, 2014). This guarantees that even if control over information itself is not possible, the meaning will not become clear to others. As such, limiting access to meaning can be a much more powerful tool for achieving privacy than trying to limit access to the content itself.

Another approach is the creation of a “light version” of our lives for publicising in order to conform to the social norm of sharing. In other words, we create the appearance of revealing our lives online by publicising a diluted version in order to maintain privacy for the more important aspects of our lives. Through this approach, we as teenagers can assert agency in a social context in which our power is regularly undermined.

Ultimately, it can no longer be said that we don’t care about privacy. Instead, it is more accurate to say that complete privacy is no longer possible without total isolation from society, and that we have had to come up with small ways to maintain privacy within public settings.