A couple years ago, an honor student at a conservative private college in Kentucky decided to do what a growing number of students are doing these days: use his Facebook account to come out of the closet and tell others he is gay.
For his openness, he was expelled from this college which had a policy of not accepting gay students.
At another university, a sophomore posted pictures of himself getting plastered at a weekend party. That would have been okay had it not been for the fact he was under the legal drinking age in Ohio and the school did not allow students to hold leadership positions on campus if they were drinking illegally.
He never became editor.
These are just two of many examples of young people who have chosen to live their lives out loud. Throwing caution to the wind, the typical 20-something who has grown up in the age of chatrooms and interactive media has embraced social media sites like Facebook to disclose just about everything they think is either shocking, amusing, or titillating about himself or herself.
And this phenomenon starts early, as the tragic cases of teen suicide over the practice of “sexting” have shown the past couple of years.
I began discovering this lack of concern about privacy a few years ago and have been asking my own college students about it ever since. Originally I asked it in the context of a class I teach on communication ethics. We deal with a section on individual privacy vs. government surveillance, which is a topic that I find somewhat scary because I’ve always wondered how widespread the misuse of government surveillance might be on Americans.
Too many blank stares
Citing some examples of such abuse, I ask my students if they aren’t a bit concerned, too. In return, I usually get silence and some blank stares. So I’m thinking that these are the same students who are willingly giving up their own privacy by self-disclosing about themselves to virtual strangers online, so why should they feel concerned about someone else invading their privacy? And apparently that is true. They aren’t.
So then I ask them if they aren’t concerned about disclosing too much information about themselves in Facebook. Again, a lot of blank stares and silence. I infer from this reaction that either they haven’t ever thought about this as a problem, or they think I’m out of a prehistoric generation that keeps too many secrets about themselves.
A third possibility is that they trust the privacy filters on Facebook as much as they seem to trust faceless government officials who controls the means to surveillance.
Who’s to blame
When I tell them about what happened to the Kentucky student or the kid at the Ohio university, they seem shocked. They usually get on the case of the administrations at these two schools, debating their policies they think got the students into trouble. I remind them, however, it was the students, who knew these policies, who got themselves into trouble by living their lives out loud.
Because of these encounters with my own students, I was surprised to see a story in the New York Times recently that revealed the results of a survey done by researchers at the University of California at Berkeley showing this thinking may be shifting among young people.
The study, funded by the Pew Internet Project, found that over half of these young adults surveyed are now more worried about their own privacy they were in 2005. That figures is about equal of the number of people their parents’ age or older who are concerned about their privacy.
Just as surprising is people in their 20s are taking more control over their “digital reputations” than are their older counterparts. They delete threatening posts and are starting to limit information about themselves. This finding could, however, be the result of younger people knowing how to engage those digital filters more than older adults who spend less time with the social media.
Possibly because many Facebook users are finding the built-in filters aren’t foolproof, many young people are all of a sudden worried about those party pix or those tell-all announcements of their sexual orientation.
Young people are also hearing, from older people like me, about how college administrators and employers are tracking Facebook and MySpace to find out more information about individuals applying for leadership posts in college or jobs beyond graduation. So that’s starting to give them pause.
Learning to distrust filters
The Times article, written by Laura M. Holson, talks about Sam Jackson, a junior at Yale who began a blog when he was 15 and who has already interned at Google. Jackson said he had learned not to trust any social network to keep his information private.
“If I go back and look, there are things four years ago I would not say today,” he told the Times. “I am much more self-censoring. I’ll try to be honest and forthright, but I am conscious now who I am talking to.”
Says Holson, “He has learned to live out loud mostly by trial and error and has come up with his own theory: concentric layers of sharing. His Facebook account, which he has had since 2005, is strictly personal. “
“I don’t want people to know what my movie rentals are,” Jackson said. “If I am sharing something, I want to know what’s being shared with others.”