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The Case for Student Privacy on Social Media

Everybody’s worried about teens on social media. Whether it’s coaches, teachers, college presidents, parents, or compliance officers, everyone wants students to learn to use social media responsibly. For some coaches, that means banning student-athletes from using it. Some schools are blocking social media use during school hours. Parents are forcing teens to friend them on social media so they can keep a watchful eye. Athletic departments are employing monitoring systems to make sure they know what athletes are up to. But many of these options are like playing whack-a-mole. You push them down in one spot, and they reappear in another—maybe a place where they are at a higher risk. It’s time we had a frank discussion about how teens use social media and learn to approach the subject from a point of view that fits their needs, and not just the needs of the adults around them. It's time to make the case for student privacy on social media.

In the new book It’s Complicated, researcher and tech expert Danah Boyd writes to debunk the myths that adults have constructed around teens’ social media use in the areas of identity, privacy, safety, danger, and bullying. Her conclusions may astound you, or at least challenge your thinking about the how and why of teen social media use. Boyd is a Principal Researcher at Microsoft Research and a Fellow at Harvard University’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society—she has done her homework. Several of her chief takeaways make the case for not only teaching teens how to protect their privacy on social media, but allowing them the freedom to construct their own social media communities.

The Need to Connect

computer chained cksymeOne of the biggest needs teens have is to connect with friends. In today’s culture, that means using social media. Boyd describes social media as the “mall of today’s teen culture.” Whereas teens use to go to the mall or each other’s homes to connect, today’s teen is too busy to leave home. The time pressure of having jobs, homework, sports, hovering parents, and other obligations leaves them little time to venture out to connect with friends. But that desire to connect is a huge driver for this group that is stuck between adulthood and childhood. Teens simply have fewer places to be together than they once did. Social media has become their hangout.

The Need for Context

Teens, more than any other people group, struggle to build context in their world. They may be juggling several communities—they might be a gamer, an athlete, a significant other, a family member, and an employee at the same time. Each of those communities has its own culture, its own set of social values. Many teens struggle with the need to keep them separate, and social media helps them connect with several communities at one time—each with their own rules and language. They can connect with one group on Facebook, another on Twitter, and yet another on Instagram. And according to Boyd, that is what they are doing.

The Need for Privacy

Teens expect those around them to understand and respect their different social contexts and to know when something is not meant for them. And yet, there are people who are confused by that expectation, especially because the content is publicly accessible. Teens often construct different personas on different networks and even use different usernames to differentiate themselves to that audience.

How Can We Help Without Hindering?

So what is the answer to helping teens maintain their privacy and still teach them to use social media responsibly? Boyd and others maintain that even though teens grew up with technology, the ever changing world of internet privacy is not native to them. Here are a couple suggestions that might help.

1. Offer students social media training. The trick is to balance the need for responsible use with their privacy needs. So while we are teaching them how to build their online brand and represent others well, we need to be teaching them how to protect their social media accounts so they are private, if that is their desire. Rather than thrusting them all out into the public eye with a pristine image, we need to realize some of them have a need to be left alone. Teach them how to privatize their accounts to fulfill that need. As Boyd says, teens are more responsible (and smarter) than we give them credit for. Sure there are exceptions, but don’t gear your training to that small exception group. We’re not teaching them to hide, we are empowering them to build their own safe communities.

2. Understand their motivations. In my Practice Safe Social™ workshops, I’ve identified three different groups of kids:

  • Those that want to be hidden from public view. It’s not usually because they want to misbehave in private, it’s just because they are private people. They are not innately irresponsible. Responsible behavior cannot be taught by social media education. Responsible behavior is a manifestation of an inward value. Teaching them to use social media responsibly won’t make them responsible people. That’s an accumulation of life lessons.
  • Those that want to move between their public and private worlds. This is the toughest group to educate. They are the ones that produce the embarrassing screen shots. This group is appalled by the fact that people who don’t know them want to know what they’re doing. They need a reality check, but they also need help in navigating the tricky world of privacy settings so they can control who sees what.
  • Those that want to use social media to build a personal brand. We wish that this was every kid, but it’s not. There are many fence-sitters that could fall into this group with the right information. This is where training can really shine, showing them the upside of what social media can do for their future careers, their reputation, and how they can help their friends, family, schools, and teams in a positive way. This group has a big picture view of personal responsibility. In athletics, I've found this is a larger group than in other student populations.

The reality of social media training is that it needs to keep these motivations in mind. You can’t cater your training to a couple groups—it has to touch on all three. Social media training should not only work to appease the adults that surround the kids, it should help the kids accomplish their goals first and foremost. It's time to help students learn how to protect their privacy on social media.

If you have questions about social media training and how to provide it to your student populations, email me at

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