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Teen Facebook posts can now be public. Does it matter?

By Trudy Dunham

Facebook changed its policy for teens last week. In the past, teens' posts could only be seen by "friends" and "friends of friends". Now, they can designate their posts for public viewing.

Does this matter? Should teens have the same privacy, or lack of privacy, rights as adults?

There are concerns about what this will mean for teens. Will this policy change further compromise their online safety? Will the impact of cyber bullying, its frequency or severity, increase? Will more young people jeopardize their educational and career futures by "unwise" posting of images, opinions and links? Will marketing become even more focused on youth, as information about their likes and activities are harvested for more specific ad targeting?

And does it matter?

All these are possible and may even be likely outcomes of this Facebook change in policy. It raises the risks to youth who use social media, and youth who just know teens who do. But it also places their Facebook posts in the same category as Twitter and other social media use where teen postings have long been public.
The more important question is that, given the policy change, how can we use it as a teaching and learning opportunities as we work with youth? And, will youth use it to foster their awareness and understanding of personal privacy, and to enhance their voice and role in American society?

Privacy in today's digital society, where it is almost impossible to erase or hide one's presence and involvement, is something that we all need to learn to manage. Even if you don't have a Facebook account, your friend or family member does. And they have the camera in their pocket to snap those embarrassing photos of you, along with the right to tell stories about you and comment on your behavior online.

I think this change in policy can be an opportunity for us to mentor youth in growing into the responsibility of handling their online persona and social media accounts.

Have you talked with friends and family about their preferences on being "captured online"? Have you talked about what images, links and stories are appropriate for including in one's timeline? Have you considered the importance of using "is this being kind and generous?" or other criterion, as a filter before posting something online?

What do you want the world to know about you? That you like cat videos, what you had for lunch, the latest gossip about who did what? These posts can be fun. But is that really what you want the whole world to know about you? If you are going to make posts public, take advantage of the opportunity to craft your online persona.

What causes do you support? Can you use social media to express your opinion on these issues, to become a 'clickactivist'? Raise awareness of upcoming events and opportunities to show one's support? Express opinions of current events? Talk about recent research and scientific findings? Raise funds for needed research or services? Advocate for candidates or policies?

Perhaps you want social media to increase your community engagement. You may want to post about the need for safer walking paths or longer library hours, or how to decrease street litter and light pollution. You may want to showcase the success of the school debate team or an opportunity for community service.

Or perhaps you want social media to be a venue for your creative self-expression, your ideas, and the application of your skills in hobbies and community.

With our youngest teens, we should encourage them to keep their settings set on "friends" or "friends of friends." We can help them learn about privacy and responsible use. But as teens mature, they can use the opportunity of public postings to showcase what is important to them and who they are. This does require effort and maturity to take advantage of the opportunities while limiting the possible dangers and negative effects. Even we adults could use a little help!

-- Trudy Dunham, former research fellow

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  1. Trudy - thank you for this timely posting on the changes to Facebook settings for youth. You raise possibilities for how to positively influence youth in our lives with the power of social media to do good and take care of oneself. You have inspired me to dig into the use of Facebook for very young teens as not good or bad but as an opportunity to become the person that you want to be in the world. Thank you for unpacking this complicated topic.

  2. A thought provoking post! If I dare self-publicise a little (sorry!) my PhD on ethical issues in youth work has touched on Facebook use (i.e. whether youth workers should use Facebook as a way to engage with young people) because it's such a hot topic at the moment.
    My first thought when reading (which you allude to at the very end) is whether this is a 'youth' problem - which also reminds me of this article by Tony Jeffs and Mark Smith: - Everything you have described is a problem to do with people in general who are not aware enough of how their online identity affects their 'real' life. How many stories have we heard of colleagues getting into trouble over Facebook posts? And how many careers advisers have we heard extolling the opportunity use FB as a tool of self-promotion?
    My vote is 'yes' - let's encourage young people to use Facebook as a way to present themselves, as a way to engage in critical reflection over what kind of a person they want to be and how they want to be known - not just for the sake of getting a good job, but for the sake of being a 'good' (in the Aristotelian sense) person.

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