Facebook’s Adolescent Privacy Bait and Switch

by Matt Klassen on October 22, 2013

With cyber-bullying, online predators, and alluring advertising all on the rise, the world of social networking is a complicated and often dangerous place for the teenage mind, and two seemingly contradictory moves from Facebook have left many wondering if the Social Network truly recognizes this reality.

On the one hand, Facebook has narrowed the default audience for posts from its teenage users, reducing it from ‘Friends of Friends’ to simply ‘Friends,’ on its own a tacit admission that teenagers need controls in place to prevent the dissemination of sometimes private and embarrassing information to a larger audience. But juxtapose that with Facebook’s simultaneous move to allow teenage users to make their posts available to the public, as well as to use the ‘Follow’ feature, potentially exposing the teenage user to a much larger Facebook segment of complete strangers.

While it should come as no surprise to hear that these moves have once again sparked controversy among privacy advocacy groups and a few concerned parents (those knowledgeable enough to know what their kids are doing online to begin with), this entire issue once again raises the question, whose responsibility is it to police the online habits of teenage Internet users?

This new public access on Facebook has sparked concern for one simple reason: “it’s potential to expose teenagers more readily to bullies, sexual predators and marketers.” Sexual offenses linked to social networking, be it Facebook or Twitter, have risen exponentially over the past several years, with pedophiles seeing this larger unsupervised area of the teenage experience as a play to prey on the vulnerable.

Further, Facebook also figures as one of the key forums for cyber-bullying, with a large percentage of those who report bullying saying they were harassed on Facebook. Let’s not forget as well that such cyber-bullying and harassment has driven several teenagers to suicide, lamentable and, dare I say, avoidable tragedies.

“What Facebook has done is classic bait and switch — fake the public into thinking they’ve added more privacy when in fact they’ve taken a whole layer away and put teenagers at greater risk for cyberbullying,” Mark Weinstein, CEO of privacy-focused social network Sgrouples, told TechNewsWorld recently.

Now there are those, however, who see these changes as largely benign, the reasoning being that its unlikely teenagers would change their default privacy settings because of their extant desire to keep their online deeds hidden, a damning critique of teens’ online habits as well.

As an Internet savvy individual with children far too young for social networking my thoughts on this are exactly that, thoughts, but it strikes me as about time that parents, communities, and schools realized that appropriate online behaviour is not something teens just know, it’s something they need to be taught. You’d be surprised how many users—adults and teens alike—simply don’t know that nothing is really private on a social network.

In fact, as frustrated as I was initially with reading this news of Facebook’s bait and switch privacy shuffle, I’m not sure its solely Facebook’s responsibility to police its teenage users; there has to be some personal accountability here, ownership of one’s online content, and that kind of awareness comes from the real world, not from social networking.

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Written by: Matt Klassen. www.digitcom.ca. Follow TheTelecomBlog.com by: RSS, Twitter, Facebook, or YouTube.

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