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

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.

So ironically, it’s the adults who are more prone to privacy transgressions?

Kids design their Facebook pages and use language that assumes, “This is our space.” Parents think, “If I can look at it, I should.” I don’t think kids see it the same way. A lot of teenagers think it’s unethical. But they know that parents will look at their Facebook pages.

Are teens concerned about cookies or behavioral tracking?

We don’t see those types of concerns among kids at all. They don’t seem to be aware of the extent to which these things go on. Where the concerns come for young people is their parents, teachers seeing what they’re doing. We rarely hear teens being critical about advertising.

Microsoft funded this research. Did they influence it at all?

We’re part of an academic research team sponsored by a corporation. A big part of our mission is making sure our research is disseminated into the public and doesn’t stay in the ivory tower. Believe it or not there was not at any point a product manager or representative saying you can’t say this or you should say this. They understand the value of this scientific exploration.

Which is?

Anything that contributes to understanding how social media is changing our lives and how we’re communicating is valuable. The more we can understand its effects, that’s better for everything from designing social media to laws and regulations around it to maybe being more compassionate with our kids in how they use social media.

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