The Online Privacy Issue: How Do Teens Think About Privacy?  Also...Michael answers a question about a teen who feels "asexual": Is it normal?.
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What are your teens doing online with their private information?  And who is watching?


How Do Teens Think About Online Privacy?


Michael Y. Simon, MFT

Round about 2010, I started hearing little rumblings.  

"Facebook? Naww, it's a time suck. I'm hardly ever on anymore."

"It was stressing me out--reading what everyone was writing or just trying to keep up with it all or getting *@!# from my friends for not responding."

"Too much drama.  Plus, it's for old people. I can't get my mom off my page."

By the time the data was in from the Pew Research Center, lead researcher Amanda Lenhart confirmed what teens had been saying in my practice for years: "They still have their Facebook profiles, but they spend less time on them and move to places like Twitter, Instagram and Tumblr."

While a majority of teens still use Facebook, the numbers were flat from 2010-12, and then began to drop, whereas the number of Twitter users more than doubled in the same time period. And along with the migration towards Twitter comes two other trends: more pictures being posted online and more publicness to the interactions.

Around 70 percent of teens say they disclose the city or town in which they live and about 20 percent give our their cell phone number, up from 2 percent of teens who disclosed their numbers in 2006.  Tweets fly quickly, and while they can be deleted, the impulsive disclosure of photos, sexual material, insults/abusive language, violent imagery and personal information can be very rapidly disseminated on Twitter via the "retweet" function.  

If the thought of your teen sending out or receiving this kind of material, quickly, makes you nervous, you'll love Snapchat. Snapchat is a photo messaging application designed by four Stanford students, but its use has gone global. The application can send your photos, videos, text or drawings to a specified list of recipients. You (or your 15 year-old) sets a time limit for how long the recipients can view the photos (up to 10 seconds) after which time the material is hidden from the recipients' devices and supposedly deleted from the company's servers.  Good, right?  Well, not if you're thinking like a teen. Teens, in general, often overestimate the benefits of an impulsive, risky action when considering the potential downside. In other words: Why not send this naked picture I "snapped" of my friend? It will be hilarious...and then just disappear! While the software is designed to prevent the easy duplication of material sent out, there are plenty of ways around the rather simple prohibitions on duplication. And, remember, we're talking about smart, motivated kids. 

The recent 2013 Pew Study on Teens, Social Media and Privacy also revealed that teens were leaving Facebook because many felt it had become too much of an adult hangout. This seemed inevitable as adolescents need a "backstage" on which to forge different identities in the process of solidifying one consistent identity.  In other words, privacy is important because it allows teens a way of exploring what they feel and think, free (at least momentarily) from the intense pressure of parental approval and disapproval. But, as teens begin to leave Facebook for some parent-related privacy reasons--for the fun of Twitter, Instagram and Tumblr--they seem unconcerned about how other adults are seeking and using their private information.

During their "heyday" on Facebook, teens in general have gotten more active and sophisticated about hiding certain personal information. They learned about privacy settings and used them, thinking of technical and non-technical ways to manage their private information. But as is typical of adolescents, generalizing from the specific is an executive functioning skill that develops over time. It's also challenging for adolescents to hold a variety of meta-perspectives from situation to situation. Teens are concerned about what certain adults--like their parents and teachers--are doing vis-à-vis privacy, but not terribly concerned about what other "third parties" (like advertisers and digital marketers engaged in data mining) are doing in relation to their online activity. Less than 10 percent of teens surveyed in the Pew study said they were "very concerned" about what these third-party entities were doing with the private information they were likely to reveal online. The study noted that: 

  • 91% post a photo of themselves, up from 79% in 2006.
  • 71% post their school name, up from 49%.
  • 71% post the city or town where they live, up from 61%.
  • 53% post their email address, up from 29%.
  • 20% post their cell phone number, up from 2%.
And in addition to the information that teens decide to reveal, there is the meta-information they don't choose to reveal, but reveal by the very act of being on their cellphone or other digital device.  What information are they "revealing" unwittingly and what are they doing online? A clue to the rather obvious answer is found in one of my recent Tweets:

3 things constantly do with digital media: connect with other teens, watch videos, and buy things. Are you monitoring and guiding?

Mass media and corporations want your teenager's money, and they're going to try to get it by becoming the primary sources of identity development for your kids. This is what so-called "Big Data," behavioral targeting and predictive analytics are all about...and it's been going on for decades. Large and small businesses are busy watching what your teens are doing online--where they visit, how long they stay, which sites and activities lead one teen to want to connect with another teen and share information, which content areas draw longer attention, along with a host of other data points--and using that information to target advertising to your particular teen. And it works really well.  When you put together the information gathered in the "background" as teens use their phones and other digital devices to connect with each other and share experiences online with the information that specific teens give out voluntarily, the process of behavioral targeting works obscenely well. 

I'm not trying to downplay or invite us to forget other safety concerns online. Teens can bully and get bullied online or be tracked by sexual predators. But these events are actually still relatively rare. The continual tracking of "voluntarily disclosed" and "routinely, but non-voluntarily disclosed" private information for the purpose of selling identity to your adolescent happens every minute in a teen's online world. It's great for business, but it might be selling your teen short...forcing them into a very narrow way of seeing themselves and the world, based upon a market-driven view of what's "good," "right" or "cool." If you want to continue to have a say in those things--and your teen no longer wants you hanging around Facebook with them--you're going to have to have some ongoing conversations with them.  About what?  it's time to talk about things like media literacy, digital marketing, the assault on privacy (against adults and children, alike) and a host of other subjects that are all about the conveyance of your values. It's not easy to do this when your teen is plugged in 24/7 and doesn't really want you in their digital world. But I'll tell you a secret: your teen might protest (especially if you insist on "connecting" without consulting them as to the time, place or duration), but he or she is actually hungry to unplug and talk with you about all of these things.

Questions surrounding what teens (in general) and your teens (specifically) are doing online--and how they think about the issues around privacy--are extremely important. In the wake of recent concerns about the secret U.S. government surveillance program (PRISM) involving Google, Facebook, Apple, Microsoft and other high-tech companies), issues of privacy are looming large.  How are you feeling about what information and just what activities in your life should be private? While you might be disturbed about recent revelations about the accessibility of your private data, it provides a context for beginning a discussion with your child. You can also  get more knowledgeable about what's at stake by reading the Pew Report cited in the article (or several chapters on parenting in the digital age in my recent book, The Approximate Parent). The more you know about the subject, the easier it is to begin these difficult, but crucial conversations.

Michael Y. Simon, Practical Help for Parents.

Ask Michael....

My 17 year-old daughter is worried that she is not ''attracted to anyone.'' Many of her high school friends are involved in sexual relationships and talk about boys a lot.  She is not interested, nor does she find anyone attractive or feel anything sexual towards anyone.  She is wondering if this is normal.  I assured her that I, too, was not interested in boys in high school, and certainly not sex, but that many of my friends were.

Now I am wondering.  Is this a normal teenage feeling?  Feeling asexual?  On a different note (or perhaps the same note), she is very focused on school, homework, and does not go out or party with friends.

In short, it's a complicated question, but feeling ''asexual'' is on the spectrum of normal sexual feeling states at this age and other ages. The real question is whether or not it is normal for your daughter, given her biology and biography.

We live in a highly sexualized culture where girls in particular are expected to be sexy but not too sexual (behavior-wise) and fit very narrow definitions of what it means to be ''sexual.'' This makes it difficult for young people, especially, to feel okay about their own emerging sexuality.

There are many questions to answer to know whether or not your daughter's situation is healthy or not; I prefer that perspective to thinking in terms of ''normal.''  Does your daughter have sexual feelings and sensations, but just not feel them towards another? Does she feel aversive towards or avoidant of sexual feelings, thoughts and actions or ''just not have any''? You mentioned that she feels ''worried''--but what more precisely is she worried about? Is it that she is worried that she doesn't feel attracted to anyone because her belief is that she SHOULD feel attracted/sexual and she's ''out of step'' with her peers? Or does she feel worried because she wants to feel more sexual or sexual towards others but she just can't ''find'' those feelings in her experience? Would she feel more sexual if she were in a different neurological state or had a particular, currently undiagnosed medical condition addressed? Is your daughter afraid to experience sexual feelings (for reasons in her past or present)? I wonder how she feels about sex in general, or about relationships, friendships, intimacy and her body (generally and specifically). Does she have friends? Has she been able to make and maintain friendships that are nonsexual?

All of these factors impact our sexual experiences, feelings and thoughts. If she is worried, I would support her exploring these questions with a trusted doctor (to rule out a primarily biological reason for her current level of sexual interest/feelings) or a therapist (to explore some of the more emotionally-based factors that comprise our sexual experiences/feelings).  I would leave the choice to explore these things to your daughter. One possibility is that absolutely nothing is ''wrong'' at all and that she may or may not feel differently in time. My personal view--as a parent, therapist and adolescent development specialist--is that when teens feel worried about things (and we're lucky enough to have them tell us about it), they should generally be encouraged to explore their worries and fears. In the process, your daughter may come to accept and know those worries more deeply, and no matter where she ends up, in terms of sexual relationships, she'll know herself better. That's a beautiful thing!

Books & articles related to this issue....

Suggested Readings

The Approximate Parent: Discovering the Strategies That Work with Your TeenagerMichael Y. Simon, Fine Optics Press, 2012.

Living and Learning with New Media: Summary of Findings from the Digital Youth Project. M. Ito et al., The MIT Press, 2009.

Mediated: How the Media Shapes Your World and the Way You Live in It. Thomas De Zengotita, Bloomsbury, 2005.

Over the Influence: The Harm Reduction Guide for Managing Drugs and Alcohol. Pat Denning, Jeannie Little and Adina Glickman, The Guilford Press, 2003.

Social Privacy in Networked Publics: Teens' Attitudes, Practices, and Strategies. danah Boyd & Alice E. Marwick, Paper presented at Oxford Internet Institute's "A Decade in Internet Time: Symposium on the Dynamics of the Internet and Society" on 9/22/11.

Talk to Me First: Everything You Need to Know About Becoming Your Kid's "Go-To" Person About Sex. Deborah Roffman, De Capo Lifelong Books, 2012.

Teens, Social Media and Privacy; A Joint Report of the Pew Research Center and the Berkman Center for Internet & Society, May 2013 (Numerous authors). Available online at

The Triple Bind: Saving Our Teenage Girls from Today’s Pressures. Stephen Hinshaw (with Rachel Kranz), Ballantine Books, 2009.

Uppers, Downers, All Arounders: Physical and Mental Effects of Psychoactive Drugs. Darryl Inaba & W.E. Cohen, CNS Productions, 2007.

About Practical Help for Parents...and our Newsletter

Founded in 1998 by adolescent specialist Michael Y. Simon, MFT, Practical Help for Parents was developed to support the people who work daily with teens. PHFP provides: informative, entertaining, research-based workshops & presentations to high school & middle school parents, faculty, staff and administrators; parent consultation and support groups; program development and consultation to mental health professionals, policymakers, and schools/school districts and; access to online resources like the PHFP Newsletter, Practical Help Tip Sheets, PHFP Parenting Blog and other web-based resources all organized by 10 Key Parenting areas. You can find more information online at

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