Some people believe that teenagers are reckless in protecting their private information on the Internet. Others are of the belief that teens are Net-savvy and are at least as smart as adults when it comes to safeguarding themselves in cyberspace. So, what is the truth? Well, the Pew Internet & American Life Project recently analyzed how teens manage their online identities and personal information in a report titled "Teens, Privacy & Online Social Networks," and the results are very interesting.
As it turns out, most teenagers are taking steps to protect themselves online from the most obvious areas of risk, according to the report. Many of them actively manage their personal information as they try to maintain important information confined to their network of trusted friends while at the same time creating content for their profiles and making new friends. The report indicates that most teens believe that some information should be shared while other information needs to be protected.
Nevertheless, and not altogether surprisingly, the report suggests that teens do face potential risks in cyberspace. Indeed, 32 percent of online teenagers and 43 percent of social-networking teens have been contacted online by complete strangers and 17 percent of online teens and 31 percent of social-networking teens have "friends" on their social network profile who they have not met in person.
The following are statistics relating to how teens use social network sites and how they handle related privacy issues:
- 55 percent of online teens have set up online profiles;
- 66 percent of teens with profiles limit access to their profiles in some way;
- 46 percent of teens whose profiles can be accessed by anyone online provide at least some false information on their profiles to protect themselves;
- 91 percent of social-networking teens use networks to stay in touch with people they already know;
- 49 percent of social-network teens use networks to make new friends;
- 32 percent of online teens have been contacted by strangers;
- 21 percent of teens who have been contacted by strangers have engaged an online stranger to find out more information about that person;
- 23 percent of teens who have been contacted by a stranger online report that they felt scared or uncomfortable as a result (this translates into 7 percent of all online teens).
Teens do post various items on their profiles, as follows:
- 82 percent of teens who have created profiles have included their first names;
- 79 percent have included photos of themselves;
- 66 percent have included photos of their friends;
- 61 percent have included the name of their city or town;
- 49 percent have included the name of their school;
- 40 percent have included their instant message screen name;
- 40 percent have streamed audio to their profile;
- 39 percent have linked to their blog;
- 29 percent have included their email address;
- 29 percent have included their last name;
- 29 percent have included videos;
- 2 percent have included their cell phone numbers;
- 6 percent of online teens and 11 percent of profiling teens have posted their first and last names on public profiles;
- 3 percent of online teens and 5 percent of profiling teens have disclosed their full names, photos of themselves and the town where they live in public profiles.
The report demonstrates that not all teens rampantly are disclosing their personally identifiable information. HOWEVER, many teenagers, across different categories, do disclose such private data. And while only small percentage disclose their full names along with photos of themselves and the towns where they live, this small percentage still represents a large number of actual teenagers. Plus, the fact that practically one-third of online teenagers have been contacted by complete strangers is troubling.
Notwithstanding the independence that teenagers crave, parents must be vigilant when it comes to educating their teenagers as to how to protect themselves in cyberspace. Often times, teenagers understand information technology better than their parents; thus, before parents can educate their teens, they must educate themselves.
Furthermore, for some teenagers education may not enough. For them, parents should do their best to observe how their teens behave online. One simple solution is to keep the family computer in a public area, such as the living room, so that parents can keep an eye on how their teens surf the Web. Some parents as a matter of technology actually monitor the online movements of their teenagers. Other parents (and certainly their teenagers) would view this as an invasion of the teens' privacy.
The world has grown a lot smaller as a result of the Internet. This, of course, brings many advantages. But a downside is that teenagers can be brought into contact with strangers with the click of a mouse. Better safe than sorry . . . .
Eric Sinrod is a partner in the San Francisco office of Duane Morris LLP where he focuses on litigation matters of various types, including information technology and intellectual property disputes.
His website is http://www.sinrodlaw.com and he can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. To receive a weekly email link to Mr. Sinrod's columns, please send an email to him with Subscribe in the Subject line.
This column is prepared and published for informational purposes only and should not be construed as legal advice. The views expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the author's law firm or its individual partners.