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Does Privacy Still Exist in the Age of Social Media?

In our last article, we discussed the first of five ways social media has altered the collective consciousness: Fear of Missing Out, or FOMO, as the kids are saying these days.

For review, FOMO refers to anxiety resulting from comparing our own lives to the onslaught of the manufactured lives of others, as deconstructed to display all fun and awesomeness, streamed via social media (yes, manufactured deconstruction—it’s post-postmodern). 

We get to see what we are currently or already have missed out on and internalize it as evidence of our lack of social capital and worth.  

Privacy in the Age of Social Media

Today we take on another closely related, issue: privacy.  Specifically, the extent to which the general discrepancy between what is “too much information” (TMI) and what should be kept private differs between teens and their parents or other adults.

Social media and other recent technological tools allow us to track, monitor, and report not only the experience of our lives but our biological functioning. 

People post everything: engagement photos, the stats from their workouts, birth and death announcements, weight loss and gained, sonograms, white blood cell counts post-chemo, their opinions on religion and politics, things that inspire love and hate, their dietary consumption and restrictions, how they slept, what they dreamt… it obviously goes on.

Humans, curious and data collecting by nature, are arguably adaptively hard-wired to track their progress and monitor the progress of others, for self-improvement, or simply self-examination, and to forge relationships with the other humans.

The current trend in over-sharing information adds a social element that is also reinforcing; human connection being another strong human motivating factor. 

“Social media offers us a new avenue for social connectedness, relating, organizing, spying/creeping, sharing, over-sharing, and manufacturing our identities for mass consumption.”

Vanity Fair published an article on the notion of the “Quantified Life,”  as the trend in collecting and analyzing our own “output,” exemplifying “the irresistible converging of microchips, medical advances, social media, geek fashion, affinity, branding, and the hardy American tradition of personal improvement.”

While there may be some adaptive or at least ‘natural’ reasons humans have developed these methods of tracking and sharing information about themselves, it can seem overwhelming and be threatening to adults who have lived through the transition from what’s private to what’s shared.

Over-Sharing and Too Much Information (TMI)

Teenagers living in 2017 have grown up in a world of constant monitoring and the potential for limitless sharing of information; it’s all they know, and therefore is familiar and comfortable.  Consequently, privacy and the concepts of over-sharing and too much information (TMI) has taken on new meaning and prescribed acronyms and new verbiage to convey them.

A 2012 survey by the Pew Research Center polled 802 teens and parents on issues surrounding the internet and privacy.  The findings supported what Susan Barnes, in a 2006 journal article, referred to as a “privacy paradox”–that teens are ‘walking contradictions’ when it comes to their privacy.  They are sharing more information than ever, while also developing and utilizing a number of strategies to manage that information. 

Despite the privacy measures available, the Pew study found that teen social media users do not express a high level of concern about third-parties (such as businesses or advertisers) accessing their data; just 9% say they are “very” concerned.

The internet has provided us with a million ways our privacy can now be violated.  The results from the survey suggest that modern teens are well aware of the practical ways in which privacy can be compromised (likely more so than their parents even) and also have mastery over the tools which they would need in order to protect their privacy, yet, teens are also more like to reveal intimate thoughts and behaviors online, despite this knowledge and understanding of the ramifications. 

As teens age into adulthood, they become more serious about editing their online lives and utilizing privacy settings.

Some Other Interesting Findings From the Survey Include:

  • 91% post a photo of themselves, up from 79% in 2006.
  • 71% post their school name, up from 49%.
  • 71% post the city or town where they live, up from 61%.
  • 53% post their email address, up from 29%.
  • 20% post their cell phone number, up from 2%.
  • 60% of teen Facebook users set their Facebook profiles to private (friends only), and most report high levels of confidence in their ability to manage their settings.
  • 56% of teen Facebook users say it’s “not difficult at all” to manage the privacy controls on their Facebook profile.
  • 33% Facebook-using teens say it’s “not too difficult.”
  • 8% of teen Facebook users say that managing their privacy controls is “somewhat difficult,” while less than 1% describe the process as “very difficult.”

Furthermore, posts are rarely impulsive, according to a really interesting research study out of a Facebook and Carnegie Mellon collaboration (Das and Kramer), which examined “last minute self-censorship” by measuring how many people typed more than five characters into their Facebook post box, but then deleted them and did not post.

Their findings suggest that approximately 1/3 of all of the Facebook users who were surveyed self-censored their posts, and 71% engaged in some form of censorship either on new posts or in comments and that the median ‘self-censor’ did so multiple times

To Censor or Not to Censor? That Is the Question…

There were also some interesting findings with regard to how a user’s perceived audience played a role in what they chose to censor.  Original posts were censored more frequently than comments, suggesting people feel more comfortable reviewing and critiquing than setting themselves up for comment or critique.

“Teenagers living in 2017 have grown up in a world of constant monitoring and the potential for limitless sharing of information; it’s all they know.”

Also, something I found somewhat counterintuitive: the broader their audience, the less likely the authors used censorship: status updates and posts directed at groups were censored more frequently than any other form of sharing; those with more diverse friend groups (measured by age, political affiliation, and gender) were less likely to censor; and those who exercised more control over their friends and therefore who had access to their posts were more likely to also censor the content in their comments and posts. 

Men self-censored more than women, particularly if they had a larger number of male than female friends.  This supports the conventional wisdom that women, compared to men, are more likely to self-disclose and are more verbal, in general.

Parents, Teenagers, and Social Media

Parents may now find themselves feeling the need to play the cat and mouse game with their tweens and teens.  Parents who might cringe at the idea of violating their child’s privacy by reading their diary or journal now face what Dan Savage refers to as the “burden of knowing.” 

Mr. Savage, who has a 15-year old son and described himself as a “very heavy duty monitor” or “the fascist parent” described the conundrum as having children who “leave a digital trail, and you feel like a negligent parent if you’re not monitoring…

What we’re trying to balance is not knowing everything we can know, which is everything and giving our son some leeway to make mistakes without dying in the process. It’s horrifying.” 

While parents have reasonable fears about who has access to what information online and the permanence of such information (for a later post in this series), this appears to be the modern way of documenting and processing existence for many young people. 

Previous generations have always bemoaned the direction of the current youth, and predict the collapse of civilization in the hands of those next in line to inherit it.  And while the world may change substantially on a relative scale, as a human species, we seem to adapt and maintain our basic composure.  

Social Connectedness and Privacy on Social Media

Social media offers us a new avenue for social connectedness, relating, organizing, spying/creeping, sharing, over-sharing, and manufacturing our identities for mass consumption. 

By virtue of providing all of these interactive ways for creating a virtual personal space within the confines of a tangible personal space (i.e., one’s bedroom) one might feel inclined to let his/her guard down and share more than he/she might if the audience was seen for what it was. 

But on the other hand, maybe humans have an innate desire to share as much as possible in the hope of forging connections and relatedness; and this primal urge has led to the development of the vehicle of social media that, after all, we have created.

“Social media and other recent technological tools allow us to track, monitor, and report not only the experience of our lives but our biological functioning.”

There’s no need to ask what someone’s up to anymore, you can just check ‘em out online.  And you probably get more than you want or need to know.

I consider myself a fairly private person.  But something about sharing over the internet makes me and many others feel shameless about sharing our opinions and general information about ourselves.  And, at least for me, there is a certain rush you get from not knowing who all will actually read it and respond to it. 

Ironically, I have gotten criticized for being too vague in my online posts; like I’m dangling some kind of fruit. God forbid I put it all out there for you. Gotta leave something to the imagination. 

Silence, Sincerity, Tranquility

Benjamin Franklin, who meticulously monitored himself and kept recordings and charts of his progress, developed a theory of 13 traits to strive for in achieving the “Virtuous Life.”  In my opinion, three of these apply quite nicely to how we may censor what we share and how we react to shared information, without regard to public versus private:

Silence: Speak not but what may benefit others or yourself; Avoid trifling conversation.

Sincerity: Use no hurtful deceit; think innocently and justly, and, if you speak, speak accordingly.

Tranquility: Be not disturbed at trifles, or at accidents common or unavoidable.

Click here to read more articles by Rachel Kitson, Ph.D.!

Rachel Kitson, Ph.D.
Rachel obtained her BA in sociology at Brown University, and her doctorate at UNC Chapel Hill. She has experience working in public schools, hospitals, psychiatric and mental health clinics, and forensic settings. Rachel specializes in working with young adults and adults who are navigating interpersonal relationships, managing the stress associated with major life transitions, and striving for balance in their lives. She provides individual, couples, and group therapy. Rachel provides assessment in issues surrounding learning, attention, motivation, mood, and personality. Areas of interest include anxiety, depression/bipolar disorder, diagnostic clarification, males and females with Asperger’s, issues surrounding identity and sexuality, and adult ADHD. Rachel also works with people and caretakers of people with chronic illness. She has experience advocating for her clients in the schools and courts. Rachel utilizes a strengths based and interpersonal approach. Therapeutically, Rachel helps her clients to examine their lives, and cultivate meaningful interpersonal relationships and experiences to enhance their quality of life.


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