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How Teens Hack Online Privacy

FEATURE / 08.29.19 / Ayla Madison

Even though some of us teens are pretty aware of the dangers online, like having strangers stalk our account and being able to learn everything about us down to where we live, what we like, or who we hang out with, it isn’t really a concern for most of us. It’s not a concern because we’ve learned to hack the system.

First, we want to be online. Socializing through apps has become a very important place for us teens due to the fact that it’s a fun and easy way to interact with all kinds of people and share who we want to be and what we like. Not to mention there are infinite amounts of memes and videos that can easily entertain us for hours.

Secondly, most social media platforms “punish” you for keeping a more private account. By that I mean that they create special features for those that aren’t private, for example, Snapchat created a location map where you can see where all of your friends are at the moment, but if you don’t allow Snapchat to have your location data you can’t be a part of it.

For a while, I admit that I wanted to share my location so that I could be part of it, but the idea of having everyone else besides my friends also knowing the exact location of where I was at every moment kind of creeped me out.

WhatsApp is also part of the “punishing” social media platforms, for instance, if you remove your “last seen” or your “read receipts” it will automatically ban you from seeing the last seen or read receipts from everyone else. Why? That just sucks. If they don’t want to be private, why punish me for it?

But in my opinion, Instagram is one of the worst when we talk about excluding anyone wanting privacy. For example, those that are private can’t have a business account which gives you access to new features like analytics about followers and posts or being able to schedule and auto publish posts.

Some things about this feature I understand, it is obvious that you can’t have a private account and share your posts for the whole world to see which hurts ad revenue, but still I think that analytics about followers should be accessible for anyone with an account, private or not. It’s one of the main reasons to make teens want to have public accounts. Instagram clearly knows this and is manipulating teens into being unsafe so they can sell more ads and harvest more data.

Privacy vs. Cool Features

Having to deal with the loss of cool features that being private brings (and sadly I can include myself in this too) makes many teens not really want to bother with their privacy settings.

I have to admit that I prefer being public to see all of the insights and special features that having a business account brought, even if it meant having hundreds of strangers lurk in my account. And I’m obviously not the only one.

On top of all of that, some platforms encourage you to let everyone keep up with every moment of your life, like snapchat or Instagram. Most teens consider snapchat to be the safer option because the photos you send to your friends delete after a few seconds and it notifies you if someone has screenshot it, but after years of using the app myself I can confirm that there are other ways of saving the picture without taking a screenshot - for example using your bestie’s phone for taking a pic of the pic!

Instagram on the other hand allows you to post stories and then save them on your wall so that everyone can view them if they visit - or in other words stalk - your account.

That isn’t an issue because many teens like how it looks to have many different stories on their wall: it’s cuter and some have even gone through hours of work to find the most aesthetic cover for each story album divided by topics: vacations, friends, meals…

Even though some teens claim it’s for their personal liking to have all of their memories displayed on their account, most of the time it’s to show all of the different aspects of their life to the public, and that isn’t an issue for them. In fact, they think that they are cooler for doing that.

How Much Sharing is Too Much?

All of this constant sharing who we are has reached the point that many teens can easily stalk for hours their peers, or peers of their peers, getting endless amounts of information. Even though it can sound creepy, we don’t consider stalking creepy unless it’s an older person exploring our lives, then it becomes pretty creepy. Otherwise, it can actually become something flattering, I know this thanks to my friends that get excited when someone lets them know that “so and so” stalked them.

This might sound wrong and weird, I know, but it’s also one of the causes of not wanting to have a private account, because then you wouldn’t have a VIP stalking you!

A lot of us have been warned that there are dangerous people that can stalk us and can find out everything about us, but it’s not something we actually worry about. It’s true that we’ve gotten tons of warnings from our parents or our teachers about predators and dangerous people online, but if we can’t see it or live it, we think it’s just a false alarm. In a lot of cases it is a false alarm though, and this fact makes us think that it’s not going to happen to us, until it happens.

Now, with a few updates made on YouTube or Instagram, these considerations are slightly more relevant because we can actually see the age groups of people that can see our pictures or videos, and that actually motivated one of my friends to go private since she didn’t like the idea of having over-thirty males looking at her pictures.

During my time online I have witnessed with my own eyes different dangerous scenarios that could’ve easily been avoided with a private account or by not accepting everyone who wants to follow me, for example, having a fifty-nine-year-old man invite me to his yacht when I was fifteen.

I remember telling my friends about it and they told me about their similar scenarios, it was a scary feeling knowing the number of creepy messages we got from strangers online.

After that conversation, some of my friends have become really overprotective about their privacy, some of them started blocking hundreds of accounts or deleted their Instagram and started new ones (no, I’m not exaggerating), but some of them simply brushed it all off and just ignored incoming messages from strangers, since they prefer having bigger audiences of people watching everything they do without regard for the potential dangers.

And there’s other ways teens have learned to protect themselves. We do it in a way that also ends up hurting social networks data collection and their advertisers, and all the teens are doing that so consider that next time you want to place your ads with social networks for anyone under 30. We do it by sharing a lot of ourselves, more than a lot actually. Oversharing is a better word for it.

Protecting Yourself Online

It’s obvious that us teens want to share our personal interests to express ourselves for who we are: musical taste, celebrities we like, food we enjoy… about almost anything we’ll share, and most of us don’t mind thinking that there will be many people seeing it, because that’s what we like and we’re not embarrassed by it. Plus, having many people seeing it isn’t negative because that’s one of the fun parts of social media. They just don’t know which “me” that is doing it.

We also fragment who we are, and who we share that fact with. A lot of us teens prefer to hide some aspects of our lives from our friends and family, and some aspects from people at school and work. The possibility of owning various accounts allows us to be able to have “multiple personalities” that not everyone has to know about, for example creating a fan account for somebody that nobody knows you like or just a simple “undercover commenter” account for those that don’t want to express their most truthful opinions under their name. So, creating these accounts gives us a sense of privacy and protection.

Besides creating secret accounts, a lot of teens will just make their real account private and only let in certain people. Then they will make a “finsta,” which is basically a “fake insta” where you post all of those things you would never post on your main account. The finsta is the teen way of saying yes to lack of privacy and no to data collecting.

To sum up, one of the main problems of social media is that we want to share and to be known for the most part, and rarely consider the risks, including creepy stalkers. Privacy is something that is mostly ignored until we see the actual danger. Just like I mentioned before, we feel like using privacy techniques when we feel most vulnerable (or of course when a parent enforces it), and even then we might actually consider if the privacy is worth it!

So in reality, a lot of teens are pretty well aware of how to be private online; they have the tools and the knowledge for it, but only use it when they feel most vulnerable, just like the examples I mentioned before, and don’t really have a problem sharing their “best moments” to everyone.

Nowadays I personally prefer having a private account, and not only on Instagram - all of my social media. I even removed my last-seen on WhatsApp or Facebook because I didn’t like the feeling of people knowing if I'm online or not.

But finally, I have to add that everybody is different, and so of course everyone will take different privacy measures, even if most of them aren’t really effective. It’s a constant balance of choosing between being private with less views or public with more views. The decision might be easier in an adult mind I guess, but definitely not for most of us teens.

So, we’ve learned to hack the method of using social media to take control of it the way we want to use it. Because according to Hacker Highschool, that’s what hacking is - knowing something so well that you can change it to make it behave the way you want it to. And that’s what many teens have done with social networks.

Ayla Madison

About Ayla Madison

Ayla Madison is a teen from ISECOM's Hacker Highschool project that has presented three times at the RSA Conference in San Francisco about teens and cybersecurity.

Ayla also illustrated How The Hacker Stole Christmas when she was 14 and is currently illustrating another book for Hacker Highschool called Hack this Book. She's currently studying art at the University of Barcelona and spreading the word that hacking isn't just about computers.