It is a basic principle of digital citizenship education that everything on the internet is public. It’s the equivalent of abstinence in sexual education or “Just Say No” when teaching teens about drugs and alcohol. If you don’t take risks, won’t get into trouble. Unfortunately, as with all abstinence only approaches, it ignores the reality of most students lives.
Teens use social media. A lot. And they share large parts of their lives online.
A “safety first” approach is overly simplistic and students are savvy enough to know it. Students understand social media like a fish understands water, so when an educator preaches “everything is public”, they follow the time-tested strategy. Roll your eyes, nod, smile, then go do what you want.
In “Making Sense of Privacy and Publicity“, danah boyd explains the flaw behind the “public-private binary”. To suggest that we can only choose one of two binary options when it comes to personal information ignores that public sharing is necessary for relationships. The less we share, the more we isolate ourselves.
We share personal information to form relationships. I tell someone I love soccer as a way of connecting with them. By sharing something I make myself vulnerable.
I may tell someone that One Direction is better than The Beatles. Share that with the wrong person and a life of shame and humiliation awaits. A teen in crisis carefully assesses who they can safely share their pain with. Who will help them and who will reject them, or worse, mock them?
What about you does no one else know? Not your partner, kids, parents, no one. Anything? Not even Don Draper can keep his secrets completely hidden. Conversely, what is something about you that everyone knows? What is a piece of personal information that is 100% public?
Most personal information is so mundane that nobody cares. That’s a common criticism of social media. It’s the sharing of trivial personal information. No one cares what you had for lunch.
Private and public are not two solitudes, they’re poles on a continuum, and our personal information lies somewhere between the two. We choose to share personal details with others, and knowing who, when and what to share is a valued and necessary social skill.
Say the wrong thing to the wrong person and “die of embarrassment”. Only through trial and error do we develop the judgement of what to share with who. We learn, through experience, that sometimes the rules change. The best friend you trust with your secrets may not be your friend next week, and suddenly everyone knows who you “like”.
This same process occurs on social media. Teens assess what they can share with who, and what the risk is. If they message their friend a secret, or a picture, can they trust them to keep it private? And of course, they take risks, make mistakes and need practice to learn how to make better decisions.
A compounding factor with social media is that online communities are less stable than ‘real life”. The “rules” change and develop much quicker and more often. As they change, so do the levels of risk. A teen may think a Snapchat picture can’t be shared, only to find out, after the fact, that it can. One day Facebook is a fun place to hang out with your friends, the next your parents are following you and potential employers are “stalking your profile”.
This is the complex interplay of public and private online. In response to this complexity and instability, we try to simply things for kids by preaching “safety first, all social media is public”. But that isn’t true, and it isn’t in the best interests of teens and tweens.
Students need adults who will guide and support them as they navigate the complexities of relationships and online sharing. They need adults who can help them find answers and solve problems, and who understand that they’re going to make mistakes. Adults who will help them clean up the messes.
Mostly, they need adults who will offer them realistic strategies for navigating the online world. Simply quoting “everything on the internet is public” doesn’t address the real issues they’re dealing with, or help them become effective digital citizens.
Being a citizen isn’t about hiding away. It’s about engaging with the world, expressing your opinion and supporting others. It’s hard to do that, when you’ve been taught to hide away, because the world’s a scary place.