I’m 19, so all through high school I used social media and watched Facebook, Snapchat and Instagram become a huge part of today’s culture. I don’t think that social media is a bad thing at all—I use Facebook all the time for communication, and I love to share my photos, articles, pictures of cute animals and to see what my friends are up to. But I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how our definitions of public and private seem to be changing, and I can’t help but worry about it.
I want to begin by announcing that I’m not exactly a “normal” teenager. Still, I am a part of the culture of social media even though I’ve never been quite as plugged-in as a lot of my friends are. And in terms of social networks, I only use Facebook consistently, so I don’t really know as much about the others as most people my age do. In fact, my friends often make fun of me for secretly being “an old person.”
Growing up with the internet is very different than growing up without it. I imagine that even ten or fifteen years ago, a teenager could come home from school, and whatever bullying or fights or other social crap they had to deal with that day would be left at school. But today, a person’s home, which seems like a private space, is invaded by the public through the shiny screens in all our pockets.
Before the prevalence of social media, at a party or a gathering with some friends, a teenager could do something stupid, and people would inevitably hear about it, but there would not be ten people videotaping it and posting it on Facebook and Instagram for the whole world to see. Recently, this actually happened to me. I was hanging out with a small group of trusted friends, and I had a few drinks and ended up making out with someone. I didn’t know it at the time, but one of my friends videotaped it, and within minutes had posted it in a group chat on Facebook with about fifteen people in it. I got her to delete the video the next day, but everyone in the group saw it and commented on it, and I’ll never be sure who saved it to their phones and could use it in the future. The scenario of a teenager doing something embarrassing or stupid that gets posted online happens all the time. It often has harmful effects like bullying, mass sharing and job loss because potential employers do check social media. Nothing like that happened to me, and (I think) the only people who saw the video were the people in the chat. But it still made me really uncomfortable.
Before it happened, I had assumed that a situation like that would make anyone feel bad, but now I’m not so sure. When I talked to the friend who posted the video, she was very apologetic, and I honestly think she wasn’t trying to be mean. It just didn’t occur to her that I would be uncomfortable having something that I did in a visible space available on the internet for anyone to see. None of the people who saw the video (a lot of whom are nice, smart people) said anything about it being online, and no one asked if I was okay with it. This seems to suggest that among young people, the idea of what should be private is shifting. We are now encouraged to broadcast everything we do, and because it’s considered cool and impressive to have your interesting life out in the open, what used to belong in the private sphere is now public. And people my age seem to think that’s the way it should be. I don’t really know what to do about this, and maybe we’re just in transition, and I’m on the wrong side. Maybe in ten years I won’t worry about it because we’ll have some new definition of privacy, and what I’m writing right now will seem outdated to me. Maybe the new definition of privacy will be something like “if you do something that no one at all could see then it’s private, but everything else is fair game.” But I can’t shake the feeling that we’re losing something by making everything that can be captured with a picture or shared in a quick sentence public.
At the very least, I think we need to talk about it more than we do now. When I was a kid, Facebook wasn’t quite popular yet, so I do have some idea of what it’s like to not have social media. But children being born now do not. If social media continues, there will be a very public record of a person’s entire life, almost from the moment they are born. Parents now post pictures on Facebook of infants still in the hospital.
From then on, parents continue to post pictures of and statuses about their kids all throughout childhood until they’re old enough to have their own pages. And then they’ll start doing it themselves. I don’t think this is necessarily a bad thing. I think it can be great for families and friends to be able to see kids growing up in this way, but I just think we need to think about what this lack of privacy means. The child did not and cannot consent to having these pictures on the web, where people can save the photos onto their computers and share them, even if the child eventually tells their parent they’d rather not have the pictures there. Also, Facebook has the right to use these photos until you and everyone who shared them deletes them, and even then, the photos are saved after being deleted (see: https://www.facebook.com/legal/terms). Facebook probably won’t use them, but they are allowed to, which is something to at least think about. And even if we decide it’s okay to put pictures of children online without their consent because people aren’t evil and we trust Facebook and the child probably won’t care that the adorable photo of them eating broccoli is out in the world anyway, I still think we need to talk to the kids who are reaching the age where they have their own online lives.
Maybe it’s as simple as parents talking to their kids about what it was like before social media, and what privacy used to mean and what it is starting to mean now. Then, at least people could make more informed choices. I don’t want people to think I’m attacking parents who post pictures of their children or friends who post pictures of each other because a lot of that can be fun and wonderful.
I just want us to talk about it.