Choose Privacy Week 2016 – Privacy and Teens: What I Learned from My Students

Choose Privacy Week, School Libraries

by Connie Williams

(Crossposted from

Teaching students about online privacy seemed so easy in the old days: don’t tell anyone your password, never meet up with anyone you ‘meet’ on the internet and don’t give out private information. The definition of ‘private information’ consisted of making sure teens never told anyone their full name, address, and other identifying information. Social media, the center of teen living today, embraces, and encourages sharing private information within an ever changing landscape. Any teacher or school librarian who walks into a classroom today and asks students which social media they use will get answers like Snapchat, Instagram, Kik, or Twitter. Ask again in a week or two, and it will be different.  I’ve discovered that location matters: a favorite app on the east coast is often disdained on the west. The app geography changes on a daily basis. Yet even as apps change with regularity, there are universal norms that our students must know about their online presence: what you post can describe you, once a post leaves your device it is no longer in your control, and there is indeed, a digital footprint that gets left behind.

What this means for children and teens is that their online lives can follow them through their offline lives. If they post provocative things or mean things or negative things, they will be perceived by their online friends as those things; even if they are none of those things in their offline lives. One of the hardest ideas for teens to grasp sometimes is the idea that they are often creating a ‘body of work’ that can define them to others.

In an informal survey I gave to about 150 9th grade students, I asked if there were any posts that they regretted posting. Most students said they had no regrets, but those who said “yes” pointed to the posts they made before or during 6th grade. These are students for whom their 6th grade silliness impacts a much wider world than when photos were taken and pasted in a photo book that gets placed on their shelves. How do we help them figure this out before unintentional consequences follow them through their online lives?

In my survey I also asked the students if they had changed privacy settings on their social media, if they were concerned with ‘third party’ access to their data, and if they could estimate about how many people probably see their posts on different apps after they’ve posted. The results showed that nearly all had changed the privacy settings on all their social media, most were concerned with third party access, and estimates on how many people saw their posts varied widely, with one student remarking that “all 850 of my followers can see everything I post.”  Why did most change their privacy settings?  “So that people wouldn’t stalk me” or “I only want the people I know and trust to see my posts.” “Third Party” was a term that not many understood – and this is a clue to us that we might want to include this concept in our teaching. Some students changed their privacy settings because parents asked them to: “Mom didn’t want me to put myself out there to everyone,” but most changed them on their own. This implies that most teens do understand at least a ‘big picture’ of social media- enough that they are taking their privacy seriously, even if they don’t always understand how that works in a more discrete way.

There are several students in these classes who participate in very little social media or none at all. Gaming attracts some students but many teens do not equate gaming with social media and while they may change privacy settings on social media, many don’t change them for their gaming apps. Some teens use Facebook with their families, but keep instagram and other “instant” apps for their friends.

Based on my student survey I learned that it is important that we spend time in school to create a set of institutional –and social – norms for civility online starting in the earliest grades. Teaching children to look both ways when crossing the street and holding our hands until we are certain that they understand the rules, is the survival mode that we use to protect our children while they are too little to understand that cars drive fast, often can’t see them, might not be able to stop in time if they run out in front of them.

Now that toddlers have online social lives via their parents, it is important that we begin thinking about how we will allow our growing children online access while still keeping them protected. While online security is not a typical survival necessity, it is one that can impact our children. As adults, the information we share about our children with our own friends and families is the first step to modeling positive online behavior. Setting up norms that children learn to follow and understand – ‘hand holding’ –  will allow parents and educators to loosen that grip, enabling them to expand their access as they grow and demonstrate their abilities to participate positively. At school, consistent instruction through the grades, expecting certain online behaviors, including those that protect privacy, will help to ensure that students are able to identify risky behavior and will feel compelled to avoid or report dangerous or inappropriate situations. This instruction becomes a natural part of our interactions with students and includes direct instruction – “today we’re going to talk about creating strong passwords” as well as subtle direction: “students, when you add your comments to the wiki tonight, remember the class norms for discourse online.” Infused throughout a student’s day, online norms keep the conversation open, allows for practice [and mistakes to happen] and develops a wider set of expectations across a community as well as just within school.

It is gratifying to see the advice that teens give to those younger than themselves. When asked “What message would you give to younger teens about privacy online?” our survey answers included: “That it never goes away,” “Don’t send anything you don’t want to get out,” “Anything you put on private is not actually on private,” “Don’t trust the privacy, anyone can see your information,” and the ever popular “Don’t post something that you wouldn’t want your grandma to see.”

While most students are not as skeptical as the one who advised: “Don’t trust any of it,” social media is the currency for teen culture and communication. Helping them to see that the portfolio of their online life can be a useful, proactive, productive, and positive view to their online friends, potential employers, and prospective colleges and can help them put their social media lives into perspective. As educators, if we create the environment for open discussion and provide district-wide expectations for positive online behaviors from the very earliest ages, then students can navigate their online lives with open eyes to the good – and the not so good – interactions that the internet provides.

Connie Williams is a National Board Certified Teacher Librarian currently working at Petaluma High School in Petaluma, CA. She is Past President of the California School Library Association and a member of the State Library Services Advisory Board.

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