Ah, to be Young: Youth and Online Privacy

Jul 04, 2013

In light of Edward Snowden's recent disclosure that the NSA is keeping tabs on our every electronic move, it's hard not to think about privacy (or the lack thereof). While I often try to ignore it, sometimes it feels like science fiction movies (starring Tom Cruise...of course) about the watchful eye of the government are slowly becoming reality. That's when I begin worrying about the fabric of society. Shouldn't we all be worried about our privacy (especially if Tom Cruise isn't going to fix this problem)?

Not surprisingly though, some of us worry more than others.

Before I delve any further into this idea of online confidentiality, I am reminded of my own evolution as a privacy-conscious (or not) internet user. I've been lucky enough over the years not to have any major email hackings or internet-based credit card fraud. My story begins where many stories about internet security begin: Facebook.

I was closing out my second year of college when one day someone started talking about this Facebook thingin class. At the time, I remember thinking, "it will never be as big as AIM." Side note: remember AIM? Those were the good old days. Away messages, unlimited profile space, customizable texts and background colors for chatting. Anyway, Facebook was still in the trickle down process at this point. You had to be invited onto the site by someone else, and while my Ivy League friends were having fun creating their profiles and writing on "The Wall," I was awaiting an email with a link to start my own Facebook page. Eventually an invite did pop up in my inbox, and I that's when my online persona changed.

I spent hours filling out my favorite music, movies, things I liked to do, etc., and all of a sudden, people I hadn't spoken to in years were adding me as a friend. They could see everything I was up to, and I could see them. This system didn't bother me for a few years. I thought it was fun; a cool way to keep in touch with long lost friends. And then, sometime in my senior year of college, what was once a nice way to waste time online had out of nowhere became a liability.

Friends of mine started applying for jobs in the real world, and their soon-to-be employers started checking up on their online activity. Pictures from freshmen year partying were suddenly used against the applicants. Statuses about drinking were seen as character flaws. Jobs weren't offered, and Facebook pages went from "open to everyone" to "only friends can see my information."

In 2013, strictly managing your privacy settings seems like a no-brainer. Back then, though, my age group - or any age group, for that matter -- didn't understand how the information they post on a social media site could impact their lives. In the years since my college days, many people have gotten smarter about who can access their personal information. Most of my friends are very conscious about their online activity, that's why I wasn't at all shocked by a recent Washington Post and Pew Research poll regarding age and online privacy.

As NPR reports, the study found that Americans ages 18-29 place a higher priority on privacy than any other age group. NPR writes: "Among them, 45 percent say it is more important for the federal government not to intrude on personal privacy, even if that limits its ability to investigate possible terrorist threats. That view falls to 35 percent among those ages 30-49 and just 27 percent among those ages 50 and older."

Many assume that the youngest social media users are the ones who care the least about online privacy. To me, this makes sense. I look at some of my younger friends on Facebook (some are college-aged siblings of my friends), and they don't seem to think twice about sharing a precarious picture of themselves or one with blatantly illegal behavior (keg stands, anyone?). I suppose it's something they'll have to learn to control, but when I see these things pop up on my Newsfeed, my first reaction is to message them and let them know that one day their employer might see that photo of them upside down over a keg and not want to hire them.

Maybe younger Facebook users feel confident that their privacy settings will keep them out of danger. With everything going on in the world right now, that's a risky attitude to have. There is always a data trail. As the Washington Post/Pew study notes, though, maybe it's just lack of information that leads to this dismissive attitude. In regard to the recent NSA story, the survey found that "just 12 percent of people ages 18-29 are following the story very closely, compared with a majority who aren't paying attention at all," according to NPR. As the old saying goes, ignorance is bliss, but it is also very dangerous.

I understand that Facebook/Instagram/Twitter are now a primary means of communication for younger people, but just because you use something all the time doesn't mean it's safe. I drive on the same road every day, but that doesn't mean that I'm immune from getting into an accident. Now I'm not saying we should all delete our Facebook accounts and go back to telegrams and letter-writing, but I'm beginning to wonder if my parents -- who don't have Facebook accounts and every year ask to be removed from the phonebook -- have the right idea.

When you put your information online, you're giving up a certain amount of power over your life. Ten years ago, this didn't matter to me at all. What did I have to hide? But the older I get, the more I feel compelled to keep my private life as private as possible. This doesn't mean I'm going to go off the grid and cut all ties with my online life but I think many young people need to stop assuming that social media sites have our best interest at heart and start remembering that what we say online will never, ever go away, no matter how many times we try and delete it.