Fast Chat: Teens Hide Themselves In Plain Sight

Microsoft researcher Alice Marwick unveils how the Facebook generation thinks about online privacy. Her findings may surprise you

Alice Marwick


Adweek: What’s the takeaway in your new study?

Alice Marwick: The big takeaway is that kids do care about privacy, even though they are heavy social media users.

How do they walk that line?
Kids will use all sorts of creative strategies to set boundaries for themselves to create privacy.

Which they define how?
We are finding a whole range of attitudes around privacy across groups of kids. Some of them define it as access—who can access someone and who can’t. For some it’s a space, a private space where they can be alone or unobserved. For teenagers this can be a bedroom, a backpack, a cell phone.

Hasn’t this always been true?
It’s a very natural and human part of growing up. They’re doing a great deal of their socializing and growing up on social media. Twenty years ago there were places they could go—the mall, the street, the backyard—without adult eyes watching them. So they turn to social media sites, especially Facebook, for that space. 

How central is Facebook?
It’s pretty impossible to participate in teenage social life without Facebook. It’s a fundamental space for socializing—like having a phone was before. 

Facebook isn’t all that private.
It is easy for a parent—or a bully or somebody not close to them—to see these interactions that may have been formerly spacially bounded.

How do they get around that?
There are all these creative techniques that young people come up with, like “social steganography”—hiding something in plain sight. If you expect people are going to see what you say, you might phrase it in a way that only people in the know understand. Or you write something like “yes!” or “I can’t stand her” and it’s vague enough to claim plausible deniability later. Private jokes, nicknames, song lyrics: it’s all talking without having the consequences.

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