A Teen’s Guide To Privacy

How to be a private public person as you’re figuring out how to be an adult.

This is part of a BuzzFeed News package on schools and social media surveillance. Read more here.

Schools around the country are buying surveillance systems that monitor almost everything teens do on their school and personal social media accounts.

Often, rather than treating students as three-dimensional people facing a variety of challenges — including fear about school shootings, bullying, harassment, depression, and anxiety — school administrators assume that teens have no digital rights and resort to surveilling them. What’s worse, the adults surveilling teens often have no grasp on the culture they consume. As a result, teen conversations can read as completely foreign to any adults watching them.

There are apps that allow teens to report other teens to school officials, services that scan social media for threats, and software that monitors everything students do on school computers and produce in emails, chats, and documents. It’s a lot of confusing systems to navigate.

What does this all mean for how you should behave online?

We talked to dozens of teens, schools administrators, security officers, and experts and found some of the advice below to be the most helpful. This isn’t necessarily a step-by-step guide, but instead some ways to think about your online habits.

Know your audience

Often, when we post anything online, we don’t know exactly who it may reach. We have a nebulous understanding at best of what it actually means when a post is “public” or “private.”

Across social media platforms, there are many small things that determine who sees your post. Your privacy settings, which let you choose if a post is public or private, are just one of these things.

You also need to think about whether you use your real name on social media, tag your friends or your school, enable your location settings, or use certain hashtags for events like prom or your homecoming game. All these bits of information factor into who gets to see your content and whether it appears when people search for content. Also, think twice before posting about being in a certain place at a certain time, especially when you’re still at that location.

Also, don’t link any of your personal social media accounts with your school email address. If you do this, notifications and direct messages will be pulled into your school’s digital system and possibly monitored.

And if you’re concerned about what adults will think or say when they read your posts, consider making a “burner” or alternate account with stricter privacy settings for your most sensitive posts — or anything you fear could be taken out of context.

With regard to school email and school computers: Anything you search, type, look at, save, or download on a school computer could be read by someone who works for the school. Assume that anything you type, send, save, or upload on a school-associated Google G Suite or Microsoft 365 account will read by a teacher or a stranger.

Know the ground rules

Many of the teens that we talked to were caught 0ff-guard when they or their friends were punished for making bad jokes or exaggerating in posts. Often, students didn’t know their school’s online code of conduct. Sometimes, it was because the school actually didn’t have any clear rules for online behavior.

Research these rules and note what your school admins consider off-limits. If they don’t have a set of guidelines for you, ask them for some. But generally, it’s safe to assume that you shouldn’t talk about sex, drugs, or alcohol or send links to porn on any school devices, with school email accounts, or on public-facing social media accounts.

In the absence of clear guidelines, it may also be helpful to apply IRL rules to your online conduct. If it doesn’t fly in a classroom, it likely won’t online either. So use any profanity with caution and definitely don’t cuss in school emails, documents, calendar events, chats, spreadsheets, or slide presentations. Also, if you think your school filters emails and documents, do not assume that adding a space or asterisk between characters will let profanity bypass a filter. Words like “f u ck” or “f*ck” may still be flagged.

Your words will always be out of context

You may have a dark sense of humor. You may like to beef on Twitter or Instagram. In your online world, you always have a lot of context of whom you’re talking to and who’s in on the joke. But always assume that adults will not get what you meant.

Adults often see posts out of context. They don’t live in your world. They don’t have the conversations that you have with your friends. They may not listen to the same music, watch the same shows, or read the same stuff as you do. That means they’re prone to misunderstanding the stuff you post online.

And if you do make a mistake and post something dumb or misguided, the lack of context will only make things worse. Our best advice is to be very, very careful about anything adversarial that you post.

Be cautious when making any jokes on a public social media account associated with your birth name that mention “murder,” “shooting,” or any other language that, when taken out of context, could refer to act of violence. You may be in on the joke, but adults may not be. And in general, think twice before you beef online.

The internet should not be your journal

You need to process your life, and you may use the internet as a space to express your feelings. But that can come with pitfalls.

Do any creative projects — including personal poetry, expository writing, etc. — in a journal or on your personal computer, using your personal Google Drive, Microsoft 365 account, or a native text document tools like Notes or TextEdit. If you want to share your work with a teacher or someone from school, consider printing it out or sharing it with the other person’s personal email. And it may make sense to share your problems in person and your solutions online.

Also, build relationships with trustworthy adults offline. If you’re having a hard time mentally or emotionally, it’s best to be able to approach an adult you trust when you feel comfortable doing so, rather than being caught off-guard when a teacher reads something in a document or an email. If you approach the adult, the power is in your hands.

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