According to the Pew Research Center’s Internet & American Life Project more than 93 percent of teens (ages 12-17) and young adults (18-29) are currently online. Many Internet governance debates are held in the name of youth and many Internet policy decisions are made to guard or guide the young. But what do we really know about how young people use the Internet and what impacts it may have on them? What are the common claims about the influence of the Internet on children and young adults that fuel the Internet governance debate? How do young people really use new communications technologies and what issues do they see as most important? This roundtable explored some of the common myths about young people and the Internet, bringing together a group of college-aged participants from several U.S. universities to engage in a peer-moderated discussion.
Details of the session:
What do you know about how young people use the technology tools available online? Moderators Colin Donohue, a journalism instructor and student media adviser from Elon University, and Ali Hamed, from Cornell University led a guided discussion with a roundtable of panelists and forum attendees about this point and more at IGF-USA at Georgetown University July 18.
The young people who participated in the roundtable were:
- Ronda Ataalla, 19, rising junior at Elon University
- Kellye Coleman, 21, rising senior at Elon University
- William O’Connor, rising senior at Georgetown University
- Chelsea Rowe, rising sophomore at Cornell University
- Jeff Stern, 19, rising sophomore at Elon University
- Kristen Steves, Cornell University student, blogger for End Slavery Now
- Nick Troiano, rising senior at Georgetown University
- William Vogt, rising senior at Georgetown University
Their discussion and the title of the workshop stem from a number characteristics often assumed by the public about youth online that have been contradicted by research, including:
– All young people are highly active users of the Internet.
– Young people don’t care about their privacy.
– The Internet is a dangerous, dangerous place.
– All teens are naturally tech-savvy and adept at creating online content – “digital natives.”
– The virtual world of online communications is isolating young people.
– Social media leads kids to be deceptive.
– Social media is addictive to everyone who uses it regularly.
– The Internet is the great equalizer.
The Youth Roundtable began by discussing privacy issues, which generated conversations about young people’s behavior on the Internet, how the youth online define friendships and to what extent privacy issues should be incorporated into education.
The panelists agreed that young people value privacy, but have generally individual views concerning what content is private or deserving of privacy.
“It’s not about knowing (about privacy),” O’Connor said. “It’s about younger generations’ values about what is private and what is public are different.”
He discussed how he criticizes his younger sibling’s activity online and acknowledged his parents’ similar sentiments about his own use of the Internet.
Vogt, Ataalla and O’Connor agreed that they are aware of, and content with, public access to content that is willingly posted.
“I think privacy is the wrong word for things that are public on Facebook,” O’Connor said.
The students argued against the myth that youth are not aware of one’s own privacy. Those on the panel explained the benefits of sharing information, and Ataalla said her professors at Elon University encourage students to keep Twitter accounts public in order to attract employers.
Private social media accounts indicate you have something to hide, she said.
When youth expect privacy
Hamed asked the panel if there is a different level of thinking regarding something willingly posted on a social network site compared to information protected by a password.
Although the panelists agreed that they value technical privacy, they also agreed that “digital natives” are more likely to trust that corporations will protect their information.
“I guess maybe I’m a little too trusting,” Steves said. “I’m skeptical, but Google, for instance, I would look at the ratings and assume that maybe because everyone uses it I’ll be safe, but that may not necessarily be the case.”
Troiano said he believed it was in the company’s interest to protect the consumers’ information, which makes him assume a successful company is trustworthy.
On the other hand, Stern explained that when FireFox stores a user’s password, anyone that uses that computer has access to that information.
“It’s just something to think about,” he said.
The conversation suggested it is not that young people do not value privacy, but rather that they distinguish between value-based privacy and technical privacy.
“We don’t understand this idea of privacy, the whole idea of data protection never crosses many of our minds,” Coleman said.
Nevertheless, Troiano said that he is not concerned with information released to advertisers, marketers and other business interests because those transactions might improve the lives of the users.
“I don’t think that’s an invasion of our privacy. I think that’s the efficiency of the Web,” Troiano said.
Cautionary relationships on the Web
While those on the panel admitted to trusting seemingly popular companies on the Internet, they expressed more skepticism concerning Facebook friend requests, Twitter followers and other more personal interactions online.
When receiving a request from a Twitter follower, Ataalla referenced Facebook to confirm the individual’s existence and questioned mutual friends to verify the person’s intentions.
Mutual friends and photographs help determine whether it is safe to accept someone’s request, Troiano said.
“We don’t get credit for thinking these things through,” Rowe said.
Although the panelists’ caution regarding relationships online counters the myth that youth are susceptible to dangers on the Internet, O’Connor identified meeting new people as one of the benefits of the Web. Coleman said she uses social media as a way to contact those interested in similar topics. She uses Twitter to find experts in journalism, her field of study.
“I have learned so much from the people I follow on Twitter, and reading articles and blogs and even having conversations with them,” she said. “It’s an opportunity to learn from, not only experts, but also peers and have discussions with them about different things through those social networks.”
Hamed asked the panelists if social networks invite new connections or solidify the network users already belong to.
“It’s both isolating and opening,” Vogt said.
O’Connor first used social networks to maintain relationships with classmates he met at boarding school, he said. But he also said those same networks can create homogenous lifestyles and choices.
“There can be a discussion abut some of the things that are lost when surrounding yourself with people only like you,” he said.
How to communicate proper online behavior
Hamed asked the panelists if they believe the youth should be educated about proper online behavior.
Although some advocated formal education, others said they think the Internet is simply life expressed in a new platform. In other words, the same values you learn that guide you in your everyday life are applicable, in most ways, to how you interact online.
“You can apply the same values you have in life (to the Internet),” O’Connor said.
For example, children are taught not to talk to strangers. Well, that concept is applicable to the Web, too. New social networks continue to enable the Internet to mirror real life.
“Our parents had the luxury of having a life where they could separate friend life and church life and family life, but information we’re putting out all has one shared life,” Troiano said.
Facebook categorized parents and friends in the same network, so all had access to the same content and information. Security controls were buried in the network, causing youth online to hesitate becoming “friends” with their parents.
But now, circles on Google+ divide social groups online similarly to how social groups are divided in real life. These fragmentations also help youth control who sees what content, giving users greater control over privacy.
Who should control Internet security?
Hamed posed another question about who should inherit responsibility of controlling privacy online.
Troiano said he doubts whether the government would have the right answers concerning privacy, but he said he believes that the market would regulate itself.
“There are bad things that happen, but the Internet, in its free form, can counteract those things,” Troiano said.
Filters communicate what is appropriate to access, Stern said, but Rowe argued there should be formal education to teach young people how to search and find credible resources on the Internet.
Nevertheless, education does not need to come from a formal setting. The youth online have the ability to standardize online behavior, Coleman said.
“We have an opportunity, as younger people, to be a part of educating, not only younger people, but our peers about these things,” she said.
– Melissa Kansky
A selection of Twitter reports on this IGF-USA 2011 event:
#IGF11-USA Eight young adults from four US universities comment on youths’ expectations and concerns for the Internet.
#IGF11-USA Youth panel discusses how to safely define “friends” online.#IGF11-USA Social networks are an opportunity to branch out @kellyecoleman. Other students say it also solidifies their current network.
Panel says youth more likely to trust that corporations will protect their personal information. #IGF11-USA
Adults don’t understand the Internet as manifestation of real life. Same behavioral values apply when on the Internet. #IGF11-USA
Being online is both isolating and beneficial in opening up new channels of individual communication. -William Vogt #IGF11-USA
Youth do care about privacy, but they trust communication on the Internet to a higher degree than adults. #IGF11-USA
“Bad things can happen, but the Internet, in its free form, can counteract those things.” -Nick Troiano IGF11-USA
The multimedia reporting team for Imagining the Internet at IGF-USA 2011 included the following Elon University students and alumni: Jeff Ackermann, Natalie Allison, Ronda Ataalla, Ashley Barnas, Joe Bruno, Kristen Case, Lianna Catino, Nicole Chadwick, Kellye Coleman, Colin Donohue, Steven Ebert, Jeff Flitter, Anna Johnson, Elizabeth Kantlehner, Melissa Kansky, Morgan Little, Brian Meyer, Julie Morse, Derek Scully, Rachel Southmayd, Katy Steele, Jeff Stern, Bethany Swanson and Carolyn VanBrocklin.