Repatriates Assembly

How teenagers negotiate their privacy on the internet/social Media

The case of the USA and Kazakhstan

There is a tendency amongst people to think that teenagers do not care about privacy. The reason for this opinion can be explained simply: most teens are active users of multiple social media platforms, so they often post photos, share links, update status messages, and comment each other’s posts. However, such an online attitude of teenagers does not necessarily mean that they reject privacy altogether.

 What adults consider as the only way to maintain privacy

Today, new technologies change the information landscape in ways that cause considerable doubt about social norms related to privacy. Social media platforms help people to build ‘networked publics’, thereby giving them instruments to see and be seen, which forces users to reconsider their desires regarding privacy in a world where sharing plays a major role. Despite data-sharing models usually being understood in the frame of individual rights and controls, the networked character of social media implies that users’ data are systematically imbricated with others. As social media content can be distributed across broad digital audiences, some may argue that the only method by which it is possible to maintain privacy is not to share information in the first place. Clearly, teenagers do not think so. They try to find new strategies by which to gain privacy in answer to the technical and social features of a networked world. They believe that it is possible to be in public without being public.

How teenagers protect themselves from being tagged on an unwanted post

Most legal models of privacy focus on the individual. These models are represented in a technical context by the concept of PII, which means ‘personally identifiable information’. PII follows communication models in which personal information is a separate entity ‘moving from actor to actor’. Most social media platforms abide by ‘access-control list’ models that allow users to decide who can gain access to their data. For instance, Facebook and LiveJournal allow people to create groups within whichthey can limit access to particular kinds of information they share. On these platforms, a person may have a “friends” group and a “family” group; he/she can share their photos from, for instance, last Friday’s party with the first group but not with the second. Other websites, such as Instagram and Twitter, use an access-control model at the account level; users can make their accounts public or private by giving full access or none.

The models mentioned above cannot help in cases where the users’ privacy is being invaded by the technical or social features of social media. For example, when someone is tagged in a photo or mentioned in a post, this will be shown on his/her timeline, which means all “friends" will get this in their newsfeed. Even though nobody has tagged him/her, Facebook may suggest to others to tag him/her based on their facial recognition algorithms. Furthermore, on Twitter, the content of the tweet that belongs to a private account can be revealed by public accounts who reply to or retweet that post. These examples demonstrate that the privacy models social media platforms follow cannot necessarily fulfil users’, in the case of this essay, teenagers’ desire to maintain their privacy, so they find their own strategies as to how to negotiate their online privacy.

One of these strategies is mentioned in boyd and Marwick’s study in 2014, where a teenager described her own tactic to combat Facebook’s feature of being visible on “friends’” timelines by being tagged in a post. Mikalah, an 18-year-old girl, said that she deactivates her Facebook account every day after she has finished looking at the website. The function of deactivating a Facebook account acts as an alternative to deletion: when a person deactivates their page, all information about them will disappear on the site, but if they change their minds and want to come back to Facebook, they can reactivate their account and consequently retrieve all their previous content. By deactivating her account every day, Mikalah prevents herself from being tagged in others’ posts because people are thus unable to find her name in the appropriate list if they try to tag her. As she is online for only short time, for the majority of the day her account will be deactivated, which means other people are not able to tag her in their posts during this time.

It is interesting to note is that the Kazakh teenagers also have the similar strategy in order to protect themselves from being tagged in an unwanted post. During the survey conducted amongst twenty five Kazakh teenagers, Amina, a 17-year-old girl, shared her own experience. She decided to not upload her real photo on Facebook, as the platform’s face recognition algorithm might recognise her in group photos and thus suggest to others to tag her. “I have never uploaded my own photo, and so Facebook does not know how I look like. I do not want my photos to appear in others’ timeline”, Amina says.

Although these strategies are not always able to protect them from being tagged in an unwanted post, the possibility of their privacy being violated has become much lower than it was initially, and they could still continue to use the social media service.

How teenagers avoid ‘context collapse’

Despite the fact that individualistic privacy models can help to gain control over some types of information, critical studies have showed that privacy should be treated contextually. Cohen and Nippert-Eng noted that privacy is a construction which represents the individuals’ norms and values within cultures, communities, or societies; this means that people understand and practice privacy in many ways. Palen and Dourish explained the notion of privacy as a boundary regulation process. They pointed out that privacy is not a set of fixed rules and their subsequent enforcement, but is rather the continuous management of boundaries between different kinds of spheres. Though people change the ways in which they communicate with others depending on context and audience, technologies cannot “understand” these boundaries, which thus make managing privacy complicated. When the contradiction of information norms – ‘context collapse’ – takes place on social media, a user experiences privacy violation.

In order to avoid experiencing such kind of privacy violation, some teenagers try to use social media platforms’ privacy settings to divide their virtual audience into distinct parts. For instance, Hunter, the participant in Marwick and boyd’s study, said that when he wanted to write something about video games on Facebook, he created different posts for his cousins and his classmates because Hunter’s cousins were fans of first-person shooter games, and always mocked his passion for ‘outmoded’ games such as Pokemon and Legend of Zelda, which were quite popular among his classmates. Being aware of this, Hunter did not want to be embarrassed in front of his peers, and therefore blocked his cousins from seeing those posts. Hunter wanted to keep his cousins in his life, and so could clearly not defriend them or delete their comments, as this would obviously seem rude. Finally, he found another way to control different norms and values in his network: he manually filtered content suitable for his peers and his cousins. This experience shows how difficult it may be to manage information flow in social media platforms where everything is available for access. The key to Hunter’s success is that he was the only bridge between the two audiences; if his cousins had also been friends of his classmates, separation of contexts would have been much harder because comments from classmates would be shown in his cousins’ timelines.

Sometimes teenagers prefer to use several social media accounts or platforms in order to avoid the ‘context collapse’ violation. For example, they can utilise one of their accounts for communicating with their family members, and another one with their peers. However, platforms such as Facebook allow users to have only one account per identity. In this case, teens may create different accounts on different social media platforms in order to negotiate their identities in different contexts, or just abandon sites that encourage a‘one identity’ policy. Participants in the research undertaken by Vickery used Tumblr as a space for different audiences, as Tumblr allowed them to keep their participation with different audiences separate, and thereby granted them a sense of contextual privacy.

In the case of Kazakhstan, teenagers often use Instagram’s function to hide some stories from some people. Aqzhol, a 15-year-old teenage boy, admitted that he would hide his Instagram stories from his parents and relatives if he posted photos or videos with cigarette. “I smoke, but my parents do not know about that. I do not want them to be aware of this habit of mine, so I blocked them to see my stories on Instagram. What about relatives, I am afraid that they may tell about my secret to my parents, so I blocked them as well”, he said. In this case, the strategy of maintain privacy was reached through the social media platform’s function itself.

How teenagers make posts understandable to their intended audience only

Various studies have shown that there are cases where teenagers have developed creative strategies to achieve privacy. The underlying approach to such tactics is to ignore technical features of social media platforms, and instead encode the information being shared. In other words, teens make the posts they share understandable purely to an intended audience; while other users are able to access and read such posts, they are otherwise unable to decipher them. A good example of such practices was discussed by 17-year-old Carmen, who participated in Marwick and boyd’s research. Her mother always intervened in Latina’s online life, posting and commenting on her posts. This, obviously, annoyed Carmen. “Because then it scares everyone away. Everyone kind of disappears after the mom post… And it’s just uncool having your mom all over your wall, that’s just lame”, she comments about that. When the relationship between Latina and her boyfriend ended, she needed support from her friends. Therefore, she wanted to post a song text that would reflect her bad mood, but she was afraid that her mother would overreact to such a post. Ultimately, she decided to post the lyrics from a 1970s British comedy that she had watched with her friends, as she was sure that her Argentinean mother was not familiar with the particular film they came from. After the appearanceof the words “Always look on the bright side of life” on Carmen’s account, her mother left the comment that she was glad to see her daughter doing so well. Meanwhile, Carmen’s friends recognised the lyric from the film where the main hero is being crucified, and instantly messaged her with support. By hiding the true meaning of the post, Carmen engaged in the practice of ‘social stenography’. The word ‘stenography’ comes from the Greek for ‘a method of hiding information that conceals the very existence of a message’. Historically, invisible ink was used to write secret letters: everybody could read them, but only people that were able to read ‘between the lines’ could recognise their true meaning. Similarly, although all users could see Carmen’s post, only those who knew how to interpret it could understand what Carmen actually meant by it. Thus, by encoding her message, Carmen could protect herself from her mother’s steadfast gazewhilst still posting a meaningful text to an acceptable audience. Instead of restricting access to information, Carmen decided to achieve online privacy by limiting access to meaning.

Another means of encoding content is to post a message in a performative manner, or what American teenagers call “drama”. Sometimes teenagers are involved in interpersonal conflict that takes place in front of a broad online audience. However, as they do not mention any names in these posts, other users that are not aware of the particular conflict in question similarly cannot understand who the post is dedicated to, and thus do not recognise the true meaning of the message.

In order to make the posts recognisable for only its intended audience, most Kazakh teenagers use a common strategy. In the survey conducted amongst twenty five teenagers, more than half respondents answered that they write posts in English. “If I want to post something about my boyfriend, I write that post in English. Considering the fact that most of elderly people including my grandmother and grandfather cannot understand English, I can easily protect my private life from gossips of my relatives. I do not think that they would try to use dictionary to translate my posts”, Aqmaral says.


All examples mentioned above demonstrate that the notion of networked privacy should be re-conceptualised. Instead of considering the violation of privacy to be at the individualistic level, people need to frame it in terms of relations between users. It is known that information on social media is inherently intertwined: that is, photos can depict several people; messages are sent and received by different subjects; users share posts that implicate others. This kind of complexity cannot be resolved through models that focus on joint rights.

A networked privacy model refutes many of the traditional statements about teenagers that are currently popular. If they make online content available, adults consider this an indication that they do not care about privacy, and encourage them to make their accounts locked in order to protect themselves. When teens reject such advice, they are considered naïve or irresponsible. Meanwhile, teenagers have their own privacy strategies, which are often different from those of adults. For example, some regularly deactivate their Facebook accounts for the purpose of protecting themselves from being tagged in unwanted posts, which would then appear in all their friends’ timelines. Others try to block certain people from seeing particular posts to prevent them from potentially leaving negative comments. Another method to avoid ‘context collapse’ is not to mention any names in a message dedicated to a particular set of individuals by only making that information understandable to those who are already aware of what is going on in the author’s life. Meanwhile some Kazakh teenagers publish their posts in English, in order to hide their private secrets from their parents or relatives. The strategies that teenagers engage in clearly cannot solve all privacy issues, but they do highlight how the technical features of social media platforms are unsatisfactory in terms of privacy protection, emphasizing the necessity for reconceptualising privacy on social media.

(All images were taken from open source)