Tech-Savvy Teens Aren't Always Careful When Sharing Their Lives Online

Young man using a laptop
Young man using a laptop

By Kevin Wei and Aaliyah Gibson Kevin is a senior Neuqua Valley High School and Aailyah is a senior at Whitney Young Magnet High School. They are student reporters for The Mash, a weekly teen publication distributed to Chicagoland high schools.

Let’s face it: In a tech-savvy world, the concept of privacy is diminishing and often causes chaos and insecurity across all age groups, particularly teens. But many teens still don’t think twice about posting things on social media sites such as Facebook, Instagram and Twitter that could put them or their friends in harm’s way.

While social networks have expanded into everyday life, privacy — or the lack thereof — has become a major concern for their youngest users.

In a few simple clicks, teens are able to post text, pictures and video on the Internet. With that, a door of infinite possibilities for others to see sensitive information is opened.

Neuqua Valley senior Alekh Meka recounts a blunder when he posted a picture of his driver’s license on Facebook.

“All I wanted to do was share my excitement of this milestone, but after someone pointed out that my address was on there, I felt really stupid in letting all of my 800 friends know where I live, some of which I barely knew,” Meka said.

Meka isn’t alone in sharing his life online — not by far. Facebook announced Oct. 4 that it hit the 1 billion active monthly user mark in mid-September. A 2011 Pew Internet report shows that at least 95 percent of teens ages 12-17 are now online and 80 percent of those online teens also use social media sites.

Devorah Heitner, a consultant and a Lake Forest College assistant professor of communication who specializes in social media use by children, said privacy on the Internet can make or break a person in an age where teens have a variety of tools to post their information but sometimes lack the sensibility to know what they should or shouldn’t be posting.

“I think that we deserve to have a private life with pictures of ourselves with our family and friends, but if we want to do that we have to provide locked-down spaces,” Heitner said. “I don’t think future employers or colleges should know everything about me or you, but at the same time you have to use technology in the correct way. If you have a Facebook profile you can use privacy settings intelligently to make sure that people can see only what you want them to see.”

The fear of a parent adding you as a friend and commenting on every picture or status update is no longer the biggest privacy issue most social media users face; it’s images of them doing inappropriate or illegal things that are readily available for the world to click and view.

It’s easy to see how colleges, companies, identity thieves and stalkers are able to take advantage of posts that contain photos of underage drinking, credit cards, driver’s licenses or even social security numbers.

Gabrielle Alexandria, a senior at Chicago High School for Agricultural Sciences, was dealt a hard blow after accepting a large number of friend requests on Facebook to boost her popularity.

“I used to (add a lot of people on Facebook), but I found out the hard way that people are creepy, and not everyone’s good,” Alexandria said. “This random guy ... started stalking me (online). I’m not exactly sure (how he was able to get into contact with me). He just saw all of my pictures and things I was posting and he started messaging me.

“It was creepy because, one, I didn’t know this guy, and two, he was trying to flirt with an underage girl he’d never even met before,” she said.

Alexandria said she no longer sees benefits from adding random people as friends, only the potential harm.

While there are sometimes scary consequences to adding lot of “friends” on Facebook, some teens say that it isn’t always the wrong way to go.

Walther Lutheran senior Joshua Jones said that accepting a lot of friend requests on Facebook is his way to connect with others who share similar interests.

“Sometimes I like to learn about people, so I add them,” Jones said. “But I don’t do it to boost my friends (just to be popular). I just like to get to know other people.”

Jones said he makes sure that he doesn’t post damaging information about himself. “I have never done it personally,” he said. “I have seen friends that do stuff like that with parties. I just think it’s really ignorant.”

Heitner said that the best way to keep privacy issues at bay is to remain vigilant about what you post in the first place. Even if you’re simply “tagged” in a photo, anyone from a college professor to the mother that hires you to babysit her children can see what is being posted.

“There are really nice girls who babysit for my son and their Facebooks are public,” Heitner said. “I look them up and I can see there’s nothing that makes me concerned, otherwise I’d think twice about hiring them.

“(But) I question why (their accounts) aren’t locked down. They have to remember that anyone out there can look them up and if there’s anything that they’re tagged in that they don’t like, they should immediately untag themselves and let the person know that they don’t appreciate it,” she said.

But it’s important to note that not all teens are careless when it comes to what they post about themselves on social networks.

Oswego senior T.J. Clark has taken an approach that involves “purging” his Facebook friend list of several hundred people to protect his sensitive info.

“I realized that I was ‘friends’ with (a lot) of people who didn’t mean (much) to me and who could only perhaps project a negative image onto me,” Clark said. “This is going to be a generation that is unfortunately going to be defined (by) what they did or did not say on websites like Facebook, and nobody but those who I decide to personally add, needs to know my private information at this age.”