Teenagers will freely give up personal information to join social networks on the Internet. Afterwards, they are surprised when their parents read their journals. Communities are outraged by the personal information posted by young people online and colleges keep track of student activities on and off campus. The posting of personal information by teens and students has consequences. This article will discuss the uproar over privacy issues in social networks by describing a privacy paradox; private versus public space; and, social networking privacy issues. It will finally discuss proposed privacy solutions and steps that can be taken to help resolve the privacy paradox.
The popularity of social networking sites on the Internet introduces the use of mediatedcommunication into the relationship development process. Teenagers now use organized social Web sites to meet others and explore identity formation. These sites can be viewed within a larger trend that shifts the influence of interpersonal correspondence to mediated messages. James Beniger (1986) described how in 1870 a crisis of control in the production sector of the United States evolved into a shift from personal relationships to bureaucratic organizational processes. Information processing systems were central to this change, and computers with microprocessors accelerated it. Beniger states: The rise of the Information Society itself, more than even the parallel development of formal information theory, has exposed the centrality of information processing, communication, and control to all aspects of human society and social behavior.  As societies achieve higher degrees of organization, mechanisms of social control will inevitably expand.  To run efficient control systems, a considerable amount of information needs to be collected about participants.
Today we have organizational and software procedures that control the exchange of interpersonal information in social networking sites, text messaging, instant messenger programs, bulletin boards, online roleplaying games, computersupported collaborative work (CSCW), and online education. All of these application fit into the larger category of social media, or media that support social collaboration. The term social media is an umbrella concept that describes social software and social networking. Social software refers to various, loosely connected types of applications that allow individuals to communicate with one another, and to track discussions across the Web as they happen.  These terms may be new, but the idea of using media as a form of social control has been evolving for a long time.
Benniger (1987) describes how mass media has gradually replaced interpersonal communication as a socializing force. Further, social networking sites have become popular sites for youth culture to explore themselves, relationships, and share cultural artifacts . The sites centralize and help coordinate the interpersonal exchanges between American teens and global brands. Sites, such as MySpace, can use the social exchanges of American youth to glean marketing information about youth culture and reinforce brand images .
The personal information revealed by teenagers on these sites also attracts sexual predators. There have been a number of reports of sexual predators locating victims through social networking sites . As a result of growing concern over the misuse of social networking, a new bill has been introduced into the United States Congress to protect teenagers. The newly proposed Deleting Online Predators Act of 2006 (Fitzpatrick, 2006) states the term commercial social networking website means a commercially operated Internet Web site that
(i) allows users to create web pages or profiles that provide information about themselves and are available to others users; and(ii) offers a mechanism for communication with other users, such as a forum, chat room, email, or instant messenger. 
Commercial social networking sites thrive on a sense of immediacy and community. The spirit is independent, even rebellious.  Teenagers are learning how to use social networks by interacting with their friends, rather than learning these behaviors from their parents or teachers. [Public conventions] generate our manners and morals — our shared assumptions and allow communications.  Often parents have no clue about the information teens are publicly revealing (Sullivan, 2005). Currently, a new type of communication behavior is emerging amongst teenagers as they explore their identities, experiment with behavioral norms, date, and build friendships.
Social networking sites, including Friendster.com, Tagged.com, Xanga.com, LiveJournal, MySpace, Facebook, and LikedIn have developed on the Internet over the past several years. For instance, MySpace was launched in January, 2004 and last November the Nielsen/Net Ratings, estimated that there were 24.5 million unique visitors to the site. More recently, the site boosted 90 million members or nearly onethird of the U.S. population (Noguchi, 2006). DeWolfe and Anderson, employees of Intermix Media, Inc. wanted to create MySpace as an Internet portal to rival Yahoo, MSN, and Google. In contrast to information seeking or news, their site would be based on usergenerated content. The original content offered was music and band promotions, and the site quickly attracted many celebrities and fans. In March 2006, MySpace was the second most trafficked site on the Internet with Facebook at number 7. At times, MySpace has had more traffic than Google (Duffy, 2006).
Last September, Rupert Murdoch purchased MySpace from Intermix for a reported $580 million cash buyout. Currently, Murdoch is getting: a gold mine of market research, a microscope into the content habits and brand choices of America’s capricious youth market not to mention millions of potential new customers for News Corp.s Fox subsidiaries. . Similarly, Christine Rosen, a fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, observed that some of the discussion groups on Facebook look like mailing lists. The same names of discussion groups are also the names used in marketing directories . The commercial aspect of the site is quite apparent.
According to ComScore Media Metrix (2006), more teens visit MySpace than Yahoo MSN or Electronic Arts, which is a gaming site. Social networking sites play a key role in youth culture because they give youth a space to hang out amongst friends and peers, share cultural artifacts (like links to funny Web sites, comments about TV shows), and work out an image of how they see themselves.  MySpace provides young people with the ability to blog, flirt, diarize, post pictures, share videos, creative artwork, and meet new people. Similarly, Facebook is a national online directory that connects students together at local schools and schools around the nation. Young people are pouring their minds, if not their hearts, into cyberspace. They are doing it to clear their heads, stow their thoughts and get feedback from peers. .
In America, we live in a paradoxical world of privacy. On one hand, teenagers reveal their intimate thoughts and behaviors online and, on the other hand, government agencies and marketers are collecting personal data about us. For instance, the government uses driver license databases to find deadbeat dads or fathers who are behind on their child support payments. Many government records have been turned into digital archives that can be searched through the Internet. Every time we use a shopping card, a retail store collects data about our consumer spending habits. Credit card companies can create even larger profiles of our shopping behaviors. Locked away on hundreds of servers is every minute detail of our daily lives from our individual buying preferences to personal thoughts. Galkin (1996) states: Much of the information that people would like to keep secret is already lawfully in the possession of some company or government entity, and what we want is to stop further disclosure without authorization.  Many people may not be aware of the fact that their privacy has already been jeopardized and they are not taking steps to protect their personal information from being used by others.
In an age of digital media, do we really have any privacy?
In an age of digital media, do we really have any privacy? Form Oscar Gandys (1993) perspective, we probably do not. Using the metaphor of a Panopticon an architectural design that allowed prisoners to be monitored by observers Gandy argues that surveillance systems can exert the same type of control in contemporary culture. He states: the panoptic sort is an antidemocratic system of control that cannot be transformed because it can serve no purpose other than that for which it was designed the rationalization and control of human existence.  He calls for an agency that will be charged with ensuring the survival of privacy.
In post 9/11 America, government agencies appear to be doing the opposite. In 2005, the Department of Defense proposed to create a marketing and recruitment database to track students for military recruitment. According to the Electronic Frontier Foundation (2005), Among the information kept on students were ethnicity, phone numbers, email addresses, intended fields of study and extracurricular activities. The record system even included parents attitudes about military recruitment.  But, the system was set up before notifying the public, a violation of the Privacy Act. Thus, establishing government agencies may not be a solution to the privacy dilemma. In a post 9/11 world, the U. S. government utilizes computer technology to exert some degree of control over its citizens, rather than protect their privacy.
Katz and Rice (2002) describe the Internet as a panopticon. They view the premise of the panopticon is a constant view of individuals through parasocietal mechanisms that influence behavior simply because of the possibility of being observed.  Internet software can be used as parasocietal mechanisms for the observation of online interactions. Online social networks allow for high levels of surveillance. In addition to marketers, college officials and parents can access social networking sites. Students may think that their Facebook or MySpace journal entries are private but they are actually public diaries.
Social networking sites create a central repository of personal information. These archives are persistent and cumulative . Instead of replacing old information with new materials, online journals are archiveoriented compilations of entries that can be searched. While American adults are concerned about how the government and corporations are centrally collecting data about citizens and consumers, teenagers are freely giving up personal and private information in online journals. Marketers, school officials, government agencies, and online predators can collect data about young people through online teenage diaries. Herein lies the privacy paradox. Adults are concerned about invasion of privacy, while teens freely give up personal information. This occurs because often teens are not aware of the public nature of the Internet.
The private versus public boundaries of social media spaces are unclear. On the Internet, the illusion of privacy creates boundary problems. New users and those engaged exclusively in recreational domains probably feel this illusion most strongly.  For example, in a television interview about Facebook, one of my students stated that she was concerned about revealing personal information online. When the reporter asked to see her Facebook page, the page contained her home address, phone numbers, and pictures of her young son. Without being aware of the dangers of online social sites, she had revealed too much personal information.
Similarly, Viégas (2005) research on bloggers suggests there is a disconnect between the way users say they feel about the privacy settings of their blogs and how they react once they experience unanticipated consequences form a breach of privacy.  Lenhart (2005) reports that 81 percent of parents and 79 percent of online teens report that teens are not careful enough about giving out their personal information online.  Moreover, parents of younger teens are more apt to be concerned about the disclosure of personal data.
Social networking tools, have almost become indispensable for teenagers, who often think theirs lives are private as long as their parents are not reading their journals. Teen use of social networking sites has increased to an average of one hour 22 minutes per day . Social networking sites are already creating new forms of social behavior that blur the distinctions between online and realworld interactions.  For example, when students began posting pictures of themselves at parties holding a beer and leaving messages that were hurtful, defamatory or demeaning, schools began considering ways to regulate the speech on [MySpace].  Adults tend to use the Web as a supplement to realworld activities while teenagers tend to ignore the difference between life online and offline.
Unlike a written journal that can be kept private, online journals are written for others to read. Who should have access to these online records? Some say that if the journal is open online, it should be available to parents. Others argue that [parents] reading journals is no different from eavesdropping on their kids.  Still, others argue the safety issue. Teens use social networking sites as a form of entertainment, but occasionally online predators use these sites to stalk victims. Several young girls have been molested by men they have met on social networking sites .
Social networking tools, have almost become indispensable for teenagers, who often think theirs lives are private as long as their parents are not reading their journals.
In an attempt to better understand student attitudes toward social networking sites and privacy, a classroom attitudinal survey was conducted to collect data about student attitudes about Facebook . In an exploratory survey, conducted with 64 undergraduate students, it was learned that 65 percent of the students used Facebook or MySpace. A Likert scale was utilized to collect data about student attitudes about privacy when they use social networking sites. When asked if they agreed or disagreed with the following statements:
I like to reveal information about myself to others through Facebook;
I trust the people I interact with on Facebook;
I can share my personal thoughts with others on Facebook; and,
I have included personal information in my profile,
the attitudinal results were neutral. There were no clear privacy attitudes related to the students use of Facebook. The only significant finding discovered was a strong disagreement with the statement: everybody should know everything about everyone else. Students wanted to keep information private, but did not seem to realize that Facebook is a public space. Sharing their personal information on social networking sites is not only sharing with online friends. Parents, future employers, and university officials can also read journal entries.
Some of the confusion about the public versus private space associated with social networks is the signup procedure. Sullivan (2005) states that the sites deserve some blame for the release of personal information. In the signup process, many ask for email addresses, for example.  Asking for this type of information and setting up requirements for membership tend to make kids think it is safe to reveal personal information online. Friendster has a registration process and LickedIn is for people with professional affiliations. Additionally, Facebook requires an affiliation with a college or high school, which also creates the idea of a semiprivate space. Sitting at home alone typing into a computer may feel like a private exchange. However, once private information is posted on the Internet, it becomes available for others to read. We have no control over who can read our seemingly private words.
Privacy can be viewed from many different perspectives, including political policies, the rights of citizens, and protection for consumers. From a policy perspective, Schement and Curtis (1995) describe privacy as security against intrusion by government.  Garfinkel (2000) notes that the word privacy does not indicate the scope of the issues of privacy in the United States today. Privacy isnt just about hiding things. Its about selfpossession, autonomy, and integrity.  Privacy is the right of people to control what details about their lives stay inside their own houses and what leaks to the outside.  Citizens and consumers should know who collects what information and how it is going to be used.
Students sharing drinking and fraternity pledging photos with their friends on social networking sites probably do not expect university administrators to use these images as evidence to reprimand student behavior . A social exchange between friends has now become a way for universities to monitor student behavior. The question becomes, how is information posted on social networking sites being used by others? When personal data about individuals are collected, processed, stored and retrieved without their consent, their information security is under threat. Information security also means that people are free to determine what information about themselves they want to share with others. . Young people do not seem to be aware of the uses of their personal information.
Laws regulate citizen and consumer rights. In commerce, much of the erosion of individual privacy occurs with the consent of the individual. For example, credit applications collect personal information and requests for catalogs can be used to compile direct mailing lists . Moreover, collecting, analyzing, and interpreting personal information stored in databases has become a datamining industry. As teenagers voluntarily provide information about themselves on social networking sites, this information could also be used by dataminers.
Many societies provide spaces for individual autonomy, a space that respects privacy. In legal cases an individuals expectations about privacy is generally debated. Another privacy issue raised by commercial social networking sites is the users expectations of privacy. In the exploratory survey, students were asked to respond to the statement: Facebook respects my privacy. The student responses were neutral with a slight tendency to disagree with the statement. Similarly when asked the following statement: In mediated environments like Facebook, my personal privacy is made public. The student responses were again neutral on a Likert scale. Some students may be aware that Facebook is not a private space, but many act as if it is private.
When asked in an open-ended question about the meaning of privacy, the responses varied from flip comments to serious answers (see appendix). For example, one student wrote: Refer to the dictionary.com definition of privacy. And, another stated: Privacy is being able to keep things from public knowledge/access. A third students answer directly related to Facebook: You arent required to show anything except your name and school email. So anything you post beyond that is your choice. But, choosing to reveal information and then having it used for a different purpose by third parties is a privacy issue . Disclosure of private information on social networking sites can have a negative impact on students. Because schools, college admissions officers, and future employers are checking these sites, personal information and pictures revealed online can directly influence a students educational, employment and financial future.
Moreover, teenagers sometimes fabricate information to post on these sites. Increasingly, many teenagers feel pressured to show themselves doing more risqué things, even if they are not actually doing them.  For instance, girls have blogged about weekends of dinking and debauchery, while in reality they were coloring with their younger siblings or watching old movies with Grandma.  What happens when a parent or college admissions officer reads these false postings? One can only imagine. As teens flock to the Internet to share their intimate thoughts, social networking sites raise a number of privacy issues that need to be addressed.
Etzioni (1999) argues the first step in examining a privacy issue is to determine whether or not there is a problem. Do we have a problem with the sharing of private information on social networking sites? According to the popular press and recent reports, there are a number of social concerns associated with social networking sites including the following: teenagers revealing too much information about themselves online (Bahrampour and Aratani, 2006; Downes, 2006; Komblum, 2005; Sullivan, 2005; Viser, 2005); children being exposed to pedophiles (Huffaker and Calvert, 2005; Lenhart, 2005); teenagers being raped by people they meet on social networking sites (Antone, 2006; Associated Press, 2006a; Reuters, 2006b); companies using the sites to collect marketing information (Hempel and Lehman, 2005; Verini, 2006); and, children under the age of 14 using social networks (Antone, 2006; Reuters, 2006b). Under14s are not supposed to use MySpace but tens of thousands ignore that stipulation, inventing ages and high schools careers still beyond their reach, and sometimes posting sexually precocious pictures. 
According to three 2005 Pew Reports (Lenhart, 2005; Lenhart, et al., 2005; Lenhart and Madden, 2005), 87 percent of American teens aged 1217 are using the Internet. Fiftyone percent of these teenagers state that they go online on a daily basis. Approximately four million teenagers or 19 percent say that they create their own weblogs (personal online journals) and 22 percent report that they maintain a personal Web page (Lenhart and Madden, 2005). In blogs and on personal Web sites, teenagers are providing so much personal information about themselves that it has become a concern. Today, content creation is not only sharing music and videos, it involves personal diaries,
Commercial social networking sites have been designed to enable users to create their own online content. Brad Greenspan, an early MySpace investor no longer affiliated with the site, said that after observing Friendster, ‘we realized that to allow people more personalization and control would give people more attachment to their Web pages.  This appears to be working because MySpace is now one of the most trafficked sites on the Internet. Lenhart and Madden (2005) report that 57 percent of online teens are creating Internet content. Additionally, more teenagers write and read weblogs, than adults. Often teenage weblogs contain personal information.
An analysis of weblogs revealed that the types of personal information revealed online includes name, address, birth date, location, and numerous contacts, including email addresses, instant messaging user names, and links to personal Web pages (Huffaker and Calvert, 2005). Because teenage bloggers are revealing a considerable amount of personal information, as well as multiple ways to contact them online, the danger of cyberstaking and communicating with strangers online is a serious issue. 
Marketers who target teen consumers can use stated, personal information gathered from social networking sites for purposes other than what users intend. Today, the commoditization of information has made it necessary to consider the invasion of privacy by corporations. Schement and Curtis (1995) state that information is gathered so that the economy can support its participants.  In a capitalistic society, marketers can use personal information collected in public online databases for commercial purposes. Additionally, companies such as Coke, Apple Computer and Proctor & Gamble are using social networking sites as promotional tools  For instance, Apple Computer sponsors the Apple discussion list on Facebook.
Schools can also access and use the information posted on social networking sites. At Chicagos Loyola University, athletes were told to get off Facebook and MySpace or risk losing their scholarships (Sports Illustrated, 2006). In May 2006, a number of hazing photos appeared on a site called badjocks.com showing athletes from Princeton, Michigan, Fordham, and UCSanta Barbara behaving badly. As a result, schools have started investigations into student athlete behavior.
Parents, schools, social networking companies and government officials consider the outpouring of personal information in public social networking sites to be a problem. As a result, a number of social, technological and legal solutions are currently being explored. Last April, MySpace hired a safety czar to oversee its site and they began deleting 5,000 underage profiles a day (Reuters, 2006b). Additionally, they are requiring all members under the age of 18 to review safety tips before they can register for the site. The company also restricts the profiles of users under the age of 16. These efforts are only a few of a number of potential solutions to the social networking privacy problem.
Solutions to protecting privacy in online social networking sites can be approached in three different ways social solutions, technical solutions, and legal solutions. Parents, schools, and social networking sites are working on various social solutions to the privacy problem. Experts (Sullivan, 2005) agree that the first step in building protections for teenage bloggers starts with parents. A representative from Wired Safety.org remarked that parents need to be much more involved with their kids computer use than they are.  A growing gap is evolving between teenage and parent use of new technology and parents need to spend time learning about these differences. The Federal Bureau of Investigation and the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children offer parents advice for detecting whether their child is engaging in appropriate behavior. 
Schools have also taken action to protect the safety of young individuals in social networking sites and they are scrambling to come up with policies on social networking sites. In many cases, schools are being forced to respond to real world problems which only came to their attention because this information was so publicly accessible on the Web.  But schools are not clear about what actions they should take about student participation in social networking sites.
Principals have called, written, and sent email to parents about teens placing too much personal information on the Internet. Some schools have banned blogs and asked students to take their information off the network (Kornblum, 2005). Other schools have refused to let students register for social networking sites with a school email address. Additionally, schools are warning students that college admissions officers and future employers are checking social networking sites to read what applicants have written online . Colleges and universities have taken action as a result of hazing photographs of athletes appearing on the Internet. Teams have been suspended and student athletes are requested to take their images off of the Internet. Additionally, students are being warned that they will be reprimanded for pictures posted on the Internet that reveal misbehavior (Wolverton, 2006).
Currently, commercial social networking companies are reacting to the problem of teens online. MySpace has reported working with the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children and the Advertising Council to create the largestever online safety program using nationwide public service advertisements. (Auchard, 2006). MySpace is posting safety ads. The spots, which computer users can see on MySpace in the form of banner ads, were also slated to begin running on a host of News Corp. outlets, including other Fox Interactive Media Web sites, the 28 Fox Networks Group broadcast networks, Fox All Access Radio and the New York Post. (Associated Press, 2006b).
Protection of teens is a parental responsibility. But the education of teens and their parents to the growing privacy problem will require an educational effort that involves schools, social networking organizations, and government agencies.
In addition to social awareness, social networking sites are exploring technological solutions to better protect their users. A few cases of online friendships that turned violent or even homicidal have pressured socialnetwork sites to provide better security for their members. Facebook recently overhauled its privacy setting to give members tighter controls over who sees what.  Additionally, MySpace utilizes software to try and identify children under the age of 14. But, they admitted that it was difficult to verify the age of all their users (Reuters, 2006a). As a result, Massachusetts Attorney General Tom Reilly has asked MySpace to install an age and identity verification system, equip Web pages with a Report Inappropriate Content link, respond to all reports of inappropriate content within 24 hours and significantly raise the number of staff who review images and content. 
Legal solutions to privacy issues involve both the human monitoring of social networking sites and technological solutions. On 10 May 2006 Representative Michael Fitzpatrick, a Pennsylvania Republican, introduced a new bill into Congress. It is called the Deleting Online Predators Act (DOPA). The proposed law would extend current regulations that require all federally funded schools and libraries to deploy Internet filters. The law is so broadly defined that it would limit access to any commercial site that allows users to create a profile and communicate with strangers.  Although, this bill will help to protect teens who access social networking sites through libraries and schools, it would not protect teens using computers in their own homes. Protection of teens is a parental responsibility. But the education of teens and their parents to the growing privacy problem will require an educational effort that involves schools, social networking organizations, and government agencies.
Commercial social networking sites have been set up to support the flow of information created by individuals. The purpose of these sites is to advertise and promote brand recognition in consumers, especially teenagers. This is a new type of subtle promotion and standards are needed to protect the interests of consumers. At one level, privacy issues on commercial social networking sites are an industry issue. How is the information collected in social databases being used by others? For instance, the Tmobile phone service automatically backs up pictures on remote servers. When a young woman lost her cell phone with a builtin camera, she purchased a new one and found pictures of the person using the lost phone. The incident ended with the arrest of a 16yearold on charges of possessing the missing phone . People are not always aware of how information is being stored on databases. As consumers, individuals need to clearly know how their personal information is being stored and used by others.
On a second level, K12 schools as well as colleges need to educate students about the proper and improper use of the Internet. Duboff (2006) reports a number of stories where college police have used Facebook as a crimefighting tool. From under age drinking to misbehavior, college officials can use social networking sites as a method for locating students involved in inappropriate behavior. To educate college students about social networking sites, Tracy Mitrano (2006), Director of IT Policy and Computer Policy and Law Program at Cornell University, created an introduction to Facebook for college students. She warns on Facebook, you have absolutely no expectation of privacy.  Schools are now actively involved in the process of teaching students about the privacy issues associated with the use of social networking sites.
Marino (2006) emphasized the idea of individual responsibility when using social networking sites. Developing responsible citizens occurs at the family level. Parents also need to be educated about how to teach their children to be responsible Internet citizens. The social solutions to the privacy paradox begin at home.
Finally, from the legal level, government officials are proposing legislation to protect minors against the misuse of their personal information by predators. Although, predatory behavior is a major social concern and one not to be easily dismissed, the root of the privacy paradox is the collection and control of personal information. Steps to be taken To resolve this paradox, steps need to be taken at all levels of society, beginning with the education of parents and teenagers about the use and potential misuse of personal information. Moreover, social networking companies and advertisers need to establish policies about the proper use of personal information posted on these sites. What do we gain and what do we lose when personal information is collected on the Internet?
Currently social responses to privacy in social networks do not tend to deal with the potential misuse of personal information. Instead the response is based on the protection of children against predators, which is only one aspect of the privacy paradox. Similarly, a legal response has been the proposal of a bill to protect underage children. The government and industry responses tend to focus on the issue of predators and this focus distracts from the actual privacy issue the social behavior of teenagers on the Internet and the use and misuse of their private information.
The solution to the paradox is not simple. It will take all levels of society to tackle the social issues related to teens and privacy. Awareness is key to solving the solution. We as individuals need to be more proactive about educating each other and protecting our privacy on the Internet.
About the author
Susan B. Barnes is a Professor in the Department of Communication at the Rochester Institute of Technology (RIT). She is the author of Online connections: Internet interpersonal relationships (Creskill, N.J.: Hampton Press, 2001), Computermediated communication: Human to human communication across the Internet (Boston: Allyn & Bacon, 2002), and Web research: Selecting, evaluating, and citing (with Marie L. Radford & Linda R. Barr; Boston: Allyn & Bacon, 2002, 2006). Currently, she is the Associate Director of the Lab for Social Computing at RIT.
Email: Susan [dot] Barnes [at] rit [dot] edu
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Paper received 26 July 2006; accepted 15 August 2006.
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.5 License.
A privacy paradox: Social networking in the United States by Susan B. Barnes
First Monday, volume 11, number 9 (September 2006),
A Great Cities Initiative of the University of Illinois at Chicago University Library.
© First Monday, 1995-2017. ISSN 1396-0466.