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Five Things You May Not Know About Teenagers and Privacy

Recent work by GfK suggests that teenagers do typically consider privacy to be important and will often go to great lengths to manage it effectively. Here are five key learnings...

There is a widespread myth that teenagers don't care about privacy. And the news stories often seem to confirm this. Paris Brown felt obliged to resign as Kent's first youth crime commissioner after some ill-advised tweets she had made before being considered for the post. More recently we had the tragic new of Daniel Perry taking his life after apparently being blackmailed over some footage of himself that he posted online. Although these are perhaps particularly heart-breaking and extreme examples, many parents are often surprised at what they see when they look at their teenager's Facebook page or Tweets.

So it is perhaps little wonder that there is a widespread belief that teenagers don't care about privacy. Indeed, why would so many of them share so much intimate information about themselves online if this was not the case? But recent work by GfK suggests that teenagers do typically consider privacy to be important and will often go to great lengths to manage it effectively. Here are five key learnings:

Many teenagers do care about privacy: Teenagers typically baulk at being treated as a homogeneous group. Whilst willingness to disclose information inevitably varies across the teenage population, it's rare to find a teenager that does not have concerns over what and how much to disclose to whom and when. We do however often find teenagers feel a tension between expressing themselves freely and worrying about what is appropriate. Mistakes are often made but given the teenage years are about learning and experimentation it's perhaps not unexpected.

Teens are often mindful about what they post: Teenagers use a variety of techniques to manage their privacy online, often in a very sophisticated nuanced manner. For example, many teens that we speak to actually say they think carefully about what they put online and will often encode sensitive messages in an intentionally vague way so that only those 'in the know' would understand the point of what was being said. That said there are also instances of impulsive posting, often unsurprisingly involving alcohol, which teens often later regret.

Teens manage their privacy by dividing time between networks: Many teenagers separate out their peer group through the use of different social networks. So teens will often find that fewer of their social circle are using services such as Instagram and Snapchat which allows them to be more selective about what they are sharing with whom. This means that smaller circles are often formed encouraging teens to share on a more intimate, personal basis than social networks where they have larger followings.

Teens can be overconfident about privacy settings: Teens often feel confident that they understand the privacy settings on their social network sites that they used. Yet it is apparent that this is not always the case as many will experience an embarrassing incident due to overconfidence in their understanding of privacy settings. So, for example, one posted the fact that he had an argument with his Mum. He did not think his Mum would see this as he had made his account private. The problem was that one of his friends in the social network 'Liked' the post via which his mother saw it. And this was just one of many examples we collected where teenagers thought they had understood the settings but they had not in fact considered all the different ways in which information could circulate.

Social norms can sometimes make it hard for teens to make use of privacy settings: The social norms around social media sometimes appear to make it difficult to use the privacy tools available. So whilst it's easy to block, unfollow and unfriend those that you don't know well, it is often considered to be quite an aggressive act to use among those that better known. Indeed, one person that we spoke to who had suffered cyberbullying found the act of unfriending her assailants actually made her life more difficult in the short term.

Perhaps it's a truism that social norms have a big role to play in social networks but as such we need to recognise the social aspects of disclosure and privacy that teenagers have to face. These norms will inevitably evolve as new social networks become available but also simply because teenage culture generally changes anyway. So there is constant work to be done to understand the teenage mindset and behaviour in this area. As such there will always therefore be a need for brands operating in this space to be sympathetic to these norms so that services can be designed to encourage a culture where teenagers are empowered to exercise their disclose and privacy in a responsible way. Behavioural Economics might provide fertile territory for brands to help nudge their social media users towards considered and responsible behaviour online.

Of course the public space of social media only has a short history and is rapidly evolving so there are new challenges for listening and acting appropriately. But helping teenagers to find their way in their social spaces is nothing new and as such surely it is not simply the responsibility of those designing those spaces but for all of us.