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Survey: Young People’s Public and Private Lives on Social Media

Survey: To assert control over the flow of images, personal content and social contexts is essential to young people when using social media. The Danish think tank Digital Youth published the report Youth’s Public and Private Lives on Social Media in November 2013. The report was based on interviews with young people about their strategies to preserve privacy as well as knowledge about data collection, surveillance, data protection and digital foot prints.

The study consisted of 11 focus group interviews conducted with youth (14-16 years) in different parts of Denmark. Interviews were conducted with the view to three themes: The role of social media in young people’s lives 2) Strategies to protect and control privacy 3) level of knowledge. Some conclusions:

Facebook as the precondition for social life
To understand “online privacy”, one must understand “online” first. What role does online media play in the young people in this study’s lives? All the young people we talked with use social media as the central platform to communicate with friends and to keep up with social and school activities. They are “always on” via their smartphone, which reinforces the full integration of social media in their lives. They are also very aware of the personal investment they put in their social media profiles and they perceive social media as extensions of themselves. As one 17 year old boy describes it: “… it is kind of like you have invested so much time in it and so much focus on how you present yourself. And this is your friends. So it’s kind of like a project. It’s part of you. So it’s a bit like not being able to talk. It’s a tool of communication which is very integrated in you”. 
But perhaps most importantly the respondents view their social media profiles as an integrated part of their identity: “One’s life is not just pictured on Facebook. It is Facebook”. (17 year old boy). And social relations are not only reinforced, but realized via social media. For example as explained by several of the young people you are not truly a couple till it has been announced on Facebook.

All of the interviewed had a Facebook profile and there was a general expectation that they can reach each other via this platform: “It is kind of expected that everyone has a Facebook profile. That you can communicate with everyone there. You kind of expect that” (17 year old girl). The young people in the study mentions Instagram, Snapchat, Twitter as´well. But generally Facebook is the primary platform and the most practical way to organize and spread information. In this way Facebook has become a precondition for social participation:
“There is a party at the school tomorrow. It might be announced on the school’s website, but no one has checked it out there. Everyone is invited for an event on Facebook. So it’s also used for practical information. For example that tickets can be bought on a website. And that is not mentioned on the school’s website” (Boy 17 years) .

Strategies to control privacy and identity
One objective of this study was to gain an understanding of what online privacy means to the respondents, which we did by asking the young people about the strategies that they use to protect and control information and images about themselves when they use social media. It was here very clear that the respondents were putting great efforts into their “social privacy”, that is; controlling their data within social contexts and circles. They did this by using the tools and settings provided y the services they use, but they also did this on a daily level by a very conscious effort defined as shared social interpretations, expectations and rules.

The respondents for example all use the “privacy tools” provided for them on their social media profiles to for example create groups and to control who can see what on their timelines, but they also are aware of the limits of these tools: ”And if there are some embarrassing pictures from some parties then I usually make them invisible to all, for example if someone tags a picture of me at a party where there has been an embarrassing situation. Then you can make it “not allowed on timeline”. But I can’t delete the picture” (boy 16 years). Many of the respondents’ activities on Facebook take place in thematic groups that they create themselves and that are only for invitees. These groups reflect already established social contexts such as the group for the class, the group for the girls in the class, the group for the ones on the football team etc.

In all groups, self representation among peers was a very conscious effort. They for example reflected extensively on what is respectively good and bad behaviour in relation to sharing images and information with and about others. There were also very clear limits to what one shares on Facebook, e.g. very emotional status updates about personal matters – parents’ divorce, break up with girlfriends and boyfriends etc. They relied on a set of complex commonly shared and defined social rules and analytical tools to manage their privacy, identity and social relations. These implicit social rules were constantly in play and emphasized by the respondents. For example many of the respondents described a “filtering” process that all pictures went through either before they are posted or just after they are posted. Again, some pictures would not even make it to the Facebook Timeline as they were deemed “not suitable for Facebook”. Others would be deleted just after being posted if deemed unfit in comments by peers. As one 17 year old girl put it: ”But you also look at the picture yourself one more time and think if you would like it yourself to have it posted. I rarely think about it. There are also pictures that are taken to look ugly just for fun. But in that case it doesn’t even cross my mind to post it on Facebook. That is just not Facebook material”. All in all, the social rules on social media among the respondents are unspoken and based on a shared expectation that everyone within the social circles knows them and will act according to these.

Level of knowledge
The study also identified the respondents’ level of knowledge regarding issues such as commercial use of data, data mining and surveillance. The control of privacy in their immediate social circles was, as described previously, a daily and very conscious effort and thus a theme that the respondents would reflect upon and discuss actively. The theme concerning the more hidden types of data collection and privacy interference was much more difficult for the respondents to reflect on.
The respondents had created their profiles at a time when they were relatively young (usually under 13): “You have heard that you probably should read those terms and conditions, because we do not know our rights. But we were very young when we created it. And then we just clicked yes.” (Girl 17 years). Unsurprisingly they had not read the terms of conditions.

When given examples of commercial use of their data or asked to reflect on this topic, they had very limited knowledge about this. Some recalled personal experiences of their images being used by others to create fake profiles or that they had been puzzled over where and how other people have found out information about them. But in general the young people in this study find it hard to imagine that their personal data would be of interest to anyone. “Surveillance” was described by the respondents as something remote that would take place in ‘totalitarian states’ far away. “I feel it’s not a problem (ed. state surveillance). It’s unpleasant when I think about it. But then I just want to look at Facebook again and then it does not matter.“ (Girl 16 years)

However, in cases where the respondents were asked directly to reflect on government surveillance in relation to their use of social media, it was described as in principle ‘not okay’, ‘uncanny’ and ‘uncomfortable’:
“… Just the thought is indeed uncanny. If the state monitors you personally. They do not have the right to do that and they shouldn’t have the right either.” (Boy 16 years)
“It’s a scary thought. But this only take place in totalitarian places. But then again for instance in the United States right now where we have the NSA with Edward Snowden and all that. Where they spy on different people through social media and Google. It’s not a very comforting thought.” (Girl 16 years)

See the survey results here (in Danish): Youth’s Private and Public Lives on Social Media (November 2013)

Read the article (in English) “Youth, privacy and online media: Framing the right to privacy in public policy-making” in FirstMonday based on the results.