In a misguided attempt to thwart prying siblings eyes from reading my secrets, I used to eat the pages of my diary. I would fill a sheet with the details of an interaction with a crush or a fight with a best friend, rip it out of its spiral binding and chew it up. There has never been a point before or since when eating my emotions took such a literal turn.
Even then, my 11-year-old mind recognized the seriousness of documenting your life and the chaos that I imagined would ensue if, for example, someone were to find out about my undying love for Jake D. or that I had started shaving my legs without permission. Looking back on those days, when the stakes around my private thoughts and feelings felt so high, and contrasting it with the internet reality that my 14-year-old sister has to deal with now, makes me glad to have grown up in the days of dial-up.
Concerns over social privacy are still very much in play with today’s youth. Rightly so, given how much learning and identity formation occurs during those deliciously horrifying early teen years. Being able to protect yourself within the confines of your mind as you work out what it means to be you is vital. Unfortunately for Gen Z, much of their social landscape occurs on the internet: a place where the inner contents of your mind so readily spill, especially from developing brains that lack impulse control and broader context. Today, navigating adolescence with a gloriously awkward body and even more awkward understanding of the world on full display — not only for peers, but for the world — is a challenge for millions of teenagers.
When adults talk about privacy on the internet, the conversation generally focuses on the integrity of the security protecting their passwords, browsing activity or bank accounts, but the concern for kids seems to be centered more on their social currency. According to data collected by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services in 2015, about 71 percent of teenagers in the United States have at least one social media account (a number that’s bound to have grown in the intervening time). It’s also been reported by the Pew Research Center that over 60 percent of teens set their social media accounts to private. Although in order to participate in these platforms, teenagers have to give over sensitive information, such as location, school attended and email.
Perhaps the misalignment between generational privacy concerns is rooted in phase of life, but after speaking with three girls, ages 14 to 16, their thoughts illuminated not only how teens today approach privacy on social media, but how the platform itself is influencing the way they share those most secret parts of themselves.
Nadia is 16 and has been on social media since she was about 13. She self-describes as a very private person. “I’m very particular about who I tell certain things and I typically only tell them if they ask. I value privacy quite a bit. It’s something that I want a firm hold on and have full control over. I definitely don’t put [private info] out there on social media or places where just anyone could see it.”
She mainly uses Instagram because she likes how easy it is to share reference material and find artists and people she’s interested in. She’s also a painter, and while she wants to be able to put her art on social media, she’s wary of “getting herself into a bad situation.”
“If I want to push my art out there I need to be relatively public, which [for me] is no fun. At the same time, one thing that’s really difficult for me about social media and wanting to really put myself out there is I feel like because we’re so used to social media influencers being very public with everything in their lives, in order to gain a following or get noticed you need to be very open. It’s almost like a requirement now. If you want to get big on social media and gain a following, you have to be personal about everything, and I’m not like that.”
Nadia’s point about openness on the internet was echoed by Ina (14 years old, mainly used Instagram and Snapchat until her parents decided it was too damaging a few months ago), who has observed that the internet propensity to overshare is leaking out into her peer group. “The internet has kind of made people lose their filter a little bit. People can be way too open about their lives with people they haven’t really built a connection with.”
Ina observes that while some people tend to overshare, others often only share an idealized version of themselves: “I feel like now people have two different personalities — their internet personalities and their real-life personalities. I became friends with a lot of people over the internet when I had it, and then meeting them in real life was so interesting because they would be so different — even the way that they looked. Everything is so different on the internet. If you present yourself differently [than in real life], you can get a lot more people interested in you. I feel like the person that you present on the internet is the person that you want to be that you can’t be in real life.”
All three girls I spoke with pointed this out as an annoying, shallow feature of social media. When viewed through the lens of privacy, though, it’s easy to see how this tendency towards one-dimensionality is in and of itself a form of protection. If no one posts anything real, then the pain of reality is no longer a threat. There is no space for secrets in flatland.
While this urge to only present an idealized version of yourself may be an unintentional privacy measure, it’s also a form of self-defense. “I feel like the internet has made people a lot more afraid to fail,” says Ina, “because they know that if they do, everyone will know about it, and it will follow them for a long time. I think it used to be a lot less stressful to mess up or get a bad grade on an assignment or have someone reject you. It was a lot less embarrassing than it is currently. People have kind of gotten into the mindset that if something happens, everyone will know about it even if it happens in real life and you’re the only person that knows about it. People don’t tend to give second chances as much as they used to, and people think that something that was said years ago is relevant now. They don’t understand as much that opinions can change.”
Victoria (14 years old, mainly uses Snapchat and Instagram) agrees with Ina. “There’s been a couple of times where people [in my school] would overshare, and someone who wasn’t their friend would use it against them.” Ina and Victoria attend a school associated with dedicated Instagram gossip accounts. “Basically,” Ina says, “it’s where people can send in gossip or confessions and then [the account mods] post it. Sometimes it gets intense because no one would know and then suddenly everyone would know.”
Victoria thinks that “now is less forgiving than the past because people can just screenshot stuff and use it against you.” To avoid having her missteps used against her, Victoria keeps her profiles private and always asks herself: Would I want to show this post to my kids when I’m old?
Entirely unprompted, everyone mentioned the danger of social media. Being able to A/B test their personalities while they’re still forming proved to be a stress point. Nadia, in particular, is wary of social media for young teens for this reason. “I do find it very unsettling and a little alarming how much access kids have to things that are even difficult for adults to think about or look at. There’s so much pornography and opinions and things that are shown that are hard for me to think about kids that age seeing. I sort of feel like it messes with the natural growing up process. I have a 13-year-old sister, and it’s really difficult for me sometimes talking to her because I feel like I see so many girls struggling with wanting to look perfect and wanting act a certain way and become a specific type of person earlier than I think they should be struggling with those things. I feel like the danger far outweighs the positivity of social media. It’s kind of scary for me, and it’s something I wish a lot more people were concerned about. I’m kind of tired of meeting people who were on social media from a really young age and are just kind of confused now because they had too much access and very little direction. These businesses need to understand how young their audience is. There needs to be a little more intention about monitoring and how easy it is to access these things.”
Ina, who has been off social media for around six months, confirms some of Nadia’s suspicions: “It’s kind of nice not having social media. It’s a lot less stressful. But at the same time, I really wish I still had it for the connection. It’s easier to make friends.”
I spoke with a few parents who revoked their child’s social media access, and most of them said they did it in order to prevent their kid from getting burned further by these platforms. Learning to regulate what you share and with whom is a struggle at any age, much less during these delicate formative years. Whether the onus is on the parents or the company is up for debate, but leaving these kids adrift to navigate the wide virtual world alone seems about as reasonable as my own prepubescent paper eating.