Teens Take Advantage of Online Privacy Tools

Many younger people have very nuanced ideas about Internet privacy. They post deeply personal information on social networking sites, but understand and use various privacy locks so only certain people can see their profiles.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

And I'm Michele Norris.

Kids these days, huh? Young people and adults seem to have very different views when it comes to privacy and the Internet. If you're a parent, you may be worried that your kids are all too willing to share personal information.

Well, recently, Facebook announced new privacy settings. They help users control who can read what on a Facebook page. We're going to take a look at how young people are thinking about privacy and the public nature of sites such as Facebook.

First, as NPR's Laura Sydell reports, kids may be more sophisticated than their parents realize.

LAURA SYDELL: Linda and Kevin Comboy(ph) and their three children, Maddie(ph), Lily(ph) and Cullen(ph), live in a big old house with worn wood floors in Berkeley, California. Lily is a pretty, confident 15-year-old, but when she was in middle school, a whole group of her friends decided they didn't like her anymore. So they took her name off their MySpace friends list. She was de-friended.

Ms. LILY COMBOY: It's like writing it out in, like, bold letters that we're not friends anymore and, like, now we're really close. But I just think that that's like a little bit brutal to, like, not be friends with someone on MySpace.

Ms. LINDA COMBOY: There were some mean things put up, not necessarily about you, but about each other. And I think it's normal things that kids are trying to work out. But it becomes this public forum, and kids can really feel hurt. In fact, we used to call it MeanSpace(ph).

SYDELL: It isn't just MySpace where kids can be cruel. Lily says she doesn't like Facebook's Honesty Box, where you write anonymous notes.

Ms. LILY COMBOY: Because my friends get, like, the meanest comments, like things about like those shorts that you wear are like way too short and, like, you can see your cellulite or something.

SYDELL: Lily has decided that she doesn't want to sign up for the Honesty Box. It's one of many decisions about what to put online that she and other young people face every day as social networking sites devise a maze of privacy settings and applications.

Sometimes the struggles over what goes online are between peers. Lily's 17-year-old sister, Maddie, once had a fight with a friend over what to put on her Web site.

Ms. MADDIE COMBOY: She took a picture of my butt with a pair of very lacy underwear on and wanted to put in on my MySpace, but I kind of told her I didn't want it up there.

SYDELL: Did she have your password so she could put stuff up?

Maddie's friend did have her password but fortunately, she talked her friend out of posting the pictures.

Ms. M. COMBOY: That was probably the most personal, almost, experience I had online just because she was very, like, it's a good picture, it looks so good. And it was the kind of thing that if she had a picture like that, she would have probably put it up.

SYDELL: Mom Linda is amazed at how much her kids have actually thought about privacy. Linda, who's in her 40s, thinks they're most sophisticated than she was.

Ms. LINDA COMBOY: They just seem more knowledgeable, and I just don't think privacy was an issue. I don't remember even being aware of it, I guess. What about you, Kev?

Mr. KEVIN COMBOY: Well, you know, I think one thing is the whole judgment thing. And when we were kids, if you said something mean to a kid in the lunch room, you could clean it up relatively quickly. Now, if somebody takes a picture of somebody on a cell phone and puts it on a MySpace page, and that's out there forever.

SYDELL: But Kevin Comboy's high-school-age daughters are using some discretion. And they may be passing through a phase on their way to having even more discretion.

Let's step out of the Comboys' living room and visit with young adults who've moved out of the house.

Here at San Francisco State University, students are having lunch at the student union. Privacy settings are very popular. These settings allow 20-year-old Andrea Marigold(ph) to block the general public from seeing her MySpace page.

Ms. ANDREA MARIGOLD (Student, San Francisco State University): Like my MySpace page is private. So, like, only people who are my friends can see my page.

SYDELL: So how does somebody qualify as your friend? Do you have to know them to let them in?

Ms. MARIGOLD: Well, yeah.

SYDELL: Facebook says every time it adds more privacy settings, more people take advantage of them. Twenty-five-year-old Jenna Roberts(ph) is a student originally from Kazakhstan, and she says these settings are essential.

Ms. JENNA ROBERTS (Student, San Francisco State University): I eliminate everyone and only accept my friends. That's the first - what I always do. And if they don't have these kind of like, you know, policy, I just don't register there.

SYDELL: Eighteen-year-old Emilio Villanueva(ph) admits he was once a little more naive about what he put online.

Mr. EMILIO VILLANUEVA (Student, San Francisco State University): There's no younger age to put, like, more inappropriate stuff on it, but then - it's just like, it makes you look like an idiot after a while. So - and so, I sort of like keep it, like, low-key now.

SYDELL: All these students realize what they put up when they were younger could come back to haunt them when they go looking for a job. And they do think about it when they decide what to put online. Still, they may make different choices than their parents would, but they are very deliberate choices that reflect the values of their generation.

Thirty-year-old Shana Naomi Krochmal, the editor of Out.com, has had some embarrassing moments.

Ms. SHANA NAOMI KROCHMAL (Editor, Out.com): I certainly, in the last five years, have had a number of experiences that were a little - they weren't uncomfortable, they were, like, mildly awkward, where I walked into a new job and I realized every single person at my welcome lunch had Googled me and had read, you know, kind of intense personal essays that I had written for a publication years before.

SYDELL: But Krochmal wasn't that bothered by her experience. She thinks it's common for her generation. And it may be a new rite of passage, one that can toughen you up.

Ms. KROCHMAL: I think what we're seeing is a generation of kids who grow up and know that people are talking about them. Maybe they want people to talk about them. But either way, I think they're a little bit more in touch with the basic reality of how people and gossip and communication actually works.

SYDELL: As more and more of the Internet generation gets out in the workforce, there may be safety in numbers, says Clay Shirky, author of "Here Comes Everybody," a book about social media.

Mr. CLAY SHIRKY (Author, "Here Comes Everybody: The Power of Organizing Without Organizations"): Where employers say, you know what, if I'm going to only interview people that I can't find anything embarrassing about, my application pool is going to shrink by 40 percent.

SYDELL: Keeping kids from putting personal stuff online is probably a lost cause. Still, Krochmal of Out.com thinks it's important for parents to talk to their kids.

Ms. KROCHMAL: I feel like it's another version of the same birds-and-the-bees talk. And I think that's a good field for parental advice. I don't think it's necessarily going to help to tell a 15-year-old you should never have sex anymore than I think it's going to help a 15-year-old to say, you should never put your picture on the Internet.

SYDELL: At least some parents are going to have discomfort with whatever their kids put up on the Internet. But perhaps they can take heart in the fact that young people are thinking hard about the implications of what they do and making deliberate choices about what they put online.

Laura Sydell, NPR News.

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