The Real Risks of Being “Always On,” from a Teen's Perspective

Teens' perceptions of their privacy, safety, and social media use.

Posted Oct 19, 2020

Kerde Severin/Pexels
Source: Kerde Severin/Pexels

For those who did not grow up immersed in digital culture, the sense of insecurity and anxiety surrounding scrolling through social media, posting photos, and connecting with friends might be difficult to understand. After all, for young people, a selfie is not just a selfie; a posted photo with friends is not just a memento of a fun event — these are visual artifacts that say something significant about one’s self-identity.

So, what do young people see as issues related to their privacy and safety, and what are the differences between parental perceptions of online risk versus teens’ real experiences of it?

There are many, according to Lisa, a 16-year-old teen in my study. “They [parents and educators] don’t understand social media very well,” she said. “There’s a lack of social media literacy and to be taught social media ‘literacy’ from somebody who is…social media illiterate…a lot gets lost in translation.” By conducting research on 35 young people between the ages of 14-22, I found that like Lisa, others believe that parents and educators do not know what teens are doing online and as such, are emphasizing the potential dangers and risks of participating in social media platforms while overlooking how to disengage when a break is needed. Here I provide an inside perspective into what teens would like their parents and educators to know about what they are actually doing online.

Generational Divide

First, let me establish that what sets Generation Z apart from the Millennial Generation is that new media technologies have been an important component of their lives from the time that they were born. Arguably, they are the first generation to be connected to digital devices to the extent that new media technologies are an important component of their daily lives. It is how they talk to their friends, coordinate plans and activities, stay connected with parents, and much more. As such, teens’ online activity can be tricky terrain for parents to navigate. How much screen time is too much? What content is being viewed, when, and by whom?

Social Media and Peer Pressure

Many young people explain that their parents tend to struggle to understand popular social media platforms such as Snapchat and Instagram and this has something to do with peer pressure and peer influence. Teens want to be connected to their friends, and sharing photos, sending text messages, and posting videos is one of the primary ways of doing this. One teen in my study said that if she sees her friends using a platform, she is more likely to use it as well. For many young people, social media is a way of seeing “what’s going on with people,” making this one of the driving forces behind their continued use, even if it might be a source of stress or anxiety.

When it comes to social media and privacy, one way that privacy is understood by teens is in relation to parents—or from parents. As explained by Sonia Livingstone, a key researcher in the field of youth and media, parents have always worried that their children will be exposed to threats from unknown adults, but with the integration of smart devices into daily life, the worry of this threat may be amplified as online behaviors and conventions become flexible, raising additional concerns for adults.

A Culture of Disclosure

Concerns about technologies and social media use among teens have required some parents to practice what Yardi and Bruckman term “technoparenting” in their 2011 research on the parenting of teens’ social media use. This may be one way of approaching the concern of teens’ privacy and safety regarding new media technology use, but it is debatable whether it is the most successful. Although many teens explained that they were taught about privacy and safety from both parents and organized school programs, many were unconcerned about dangers and threats online. Rather than trying to hide personal information from others as previous generations may have, teens are creating what the authors of a MIT study term a “culture of disclosure” where they create their online selves with the idea that public is the new private. Teens often create their online selves fully aware that other people are watching and are equipped with the skill to navigate the platform to change platform privacy settings, use coded language, and selectively share information to keep their ‘private’ information private. One teen explained that she is not concerned because she does not do anything that could be thought of as “sketchy” or disreputable. She said: “I’m not like a sketchy person or anything like that. But I feel like definitely some people if they are posting, there’s this one guy who went to my high school and on Snapchat he always posts like him driving while he’s smoking and it’s like, that’s illegal. I don’t do that.” Some also explained that they felt in control of their privacy settings over social media and to some degree could control who views their images by changing settings from public to private and only allowing friends and family access to posts and photos.

However, what many young people did desire was a need for more education and information surrounding practical ways to disengage from social media use—either a temporary “break” or as a longer-term lifestyle change. Some teens expressed that they felt overwhelmed by social media as it requires always looking and liking, and can create pressure to post. Some strategies used by teens in my study include deactivating social media accounts for a set period of time, leaving the phone at home when going out, going places without a WiFi connection, and enforcing a "no phones" rule when spending time with friends. So perhaps it is not a complete disconnection from social media that would benefit teens — or all of us for that matter — but more practical tools for disengaging when they feel overwhelmed.


James, C., Davis, K., Flores, A., Francis, J.M., Pettingill, L., Rundel, M., & Gradner, H. (2009). Young People, Ethics, and the New Digital Media: A Synthesis from the GoodPlay Project. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Livingstone, S. (2009). Children and the Internet. Cambridge: Polity.

Yardi, S., Bruckman, A. (2011) Social and Technical Challenges in Parenting Teens’ Social Media Use. In Proceedings of the ACM Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems(CHI ‘11),3237-3246