Dr. Megan Moreno.

Dr. Megan Moreno, investigator in Seattle Children’s Research Institute’s Center for Child Health, Behavior and Development and adolescent medicine expert at Seattle Children’s Hospital.

Today’s teens are the first “digital natives” who have grown up with the internet. So much of what they learn about online safety comes from their peers, but what lessons are they teaching one another? To find out, Dr. Megan Moreno, an investigator in Seattle Children’s Research Institute’s Center for Child Health, Behavior and Development and adolescent medicine expert at Seattle Children’s Hospital, led a study to discover what teens felt were key safety issues and what messages they could be sharing with their peers. She shares her findings here:

Most teens today, including those I see in clinic each week, spend time on social media sites such as Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. While these sites provide adolescents with numerous benefits, including social support and exposure to new ideas, there are also risks of internet use, such as cyberbullying and invasion of privacy. Educating adolescents about how to protect their privacy and use the internet safely may prevent many risks. However, there aren’t any widespread, tested and comprehensive resources available to teach these skills to teens because the internet is still a relatively new phenomenon. Most teens say they learn about internet safety from their peers, but it’s unclear what lessons they may be learning in this way.  Our research team led a study to discover what teens felt were key safety issues and what messages they could be sharing with their peers.

We facilitated conversations with small groups of teens discussing internet safety and privacy protection in both 2009 and 2012. We focused our research on young women; this decision was based on previous studies that have shown women are more invested in social media for social connections than men and more likely to display personal content online. Our goal was to identify key issues regarding privacy protection that could be used towards future educational efforts, and determine whether these issues changed over time. The following themes were prominent in the teens’ conversations:

Social media urban myths

Study participants in both 2009 and 2012 shared “urban myths” about the inadequacy of privacy settings to protect the user’s online information. Myths typically involved strangers who were able to bypass security restrictions on social media profiles, most often on Facebook.

One study participant said: “I knew a kid in high school who was a lacrosse player. And he got a huge scholarship to [prestigious school] for lacrosse. And he posted on someone’s wall about smoking pot and the school found it and he had to withdraw.”

Filtering online information

Participants also emphasized the importance of filtering the information users post online, though the motivations for this changed over time. In 2009, participants discussed being selective with what they displayed online due to safety reasons. In 2012, participants were more likely to discuss caution related to presenting one’s “best self” online or to protect one’s reputation.

Age limits on social media

A final theme that came up in group discussions was participants’ support of limiting access to social media, such as Facebook, to teens under age 13. Participants described various reasons for supporting these age restrictions, including safety concerns as well as annoyance with what young teens like to post. A favorite quote from a participant was “My brother has one and he is 12. That’s, like, a joke.”

Continuing to educate teens about online safety

This study presents a complex picture of how today’s teens view online safety and privacy protection. Our participant’s beliefs in urban myths may help parents, teachers and healthcare providers better understand why many youths lack motivation to invest in learning and maintaining privacy settings. If they believe that the security settings don’t work, then why would teens try to learn them?

It is also important for those who work with teens to understand that many youth feel a personal responsibility to filter the information they display online, but this may be motivated by social factors rather than safety reasons. Helping teach teens to be mindful about what they post, and promoting both the social and safety benefits of filtering, may be a good approach to take.

Finally, our study suggests that, similar to many parents, older teens perceive many risks to young teens from using social media sites. At present, Facebook limits its users to those over age 13. Parents may wish to consider benefits versus risks of using social media before providing permission to a young teen to create a Facebook profile.

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