09/30/2013 12:04 pm ET Updated Nov 30, 2013

Teens Shifting Privacy Settings on Facebook -- Really?

A New York Times headline caught my eye last week: "Facebook Removes Dating Ads Featuring Photo of Dead Girl." The story, itself, was a little bizarre: an online Canadian dating service published an ad on Facebook which used the photo of a young woman who had committed suicide reportedly after being the target of cyberbullying. When Facebook was informed about this they pulled the ad and deactivated the account of the company that had placed it. Where had that photo come from and how did the dating service get access to it? But what this story really made me wonder was, are teenagers starting to do different things with their privacy settings and control access to their photos and personal information in different ways on Facebook?

This question comes at a time when Facebook, itself, is facing an inquiry from the Federal Trade Commission about some of the changes the company has proposed to its privacy settings. One of the things being questioned is whether these proposed changes would, in fact, give Facebook "wider latitude to use the names and photos of teenagers in ads and also...allow the company to use photos of its users in facial recognition software that would help their friends tag them in other photos," according to an article in the New York Times.
But what about teenagers, themselves? Is their privacy on Facebook as much of an issue to them as it seems to be to older people and regulators?

I asked some of my Tufts students about their Facebook privacy and how they felt about it. Have they changed what they do with privacy settings since what they had done in high school? How often do they change their settings now, and why?

Many of them reported that they are, in fact, more diligent about privacy settings than they used to be. One student told me that he thought college students tended to ramp up their privacy settings and change them more frequently because "we're getting closer to being in the real world and we've all heard these horror stories of prospective employers mining applicants' Facebooks. No one wants to go into an interview and have someone tell you they saw a photo of you puking on the lawn so forget about a job with this company!"

Another student said that she thought she and her cohort were much more attentive to privacy settings than they used to be because the novelty of having Facebook has worn off. "It's more important to us to share the things we want to with the people with whom we want to share them, and not the whole world," she said.

A third student suggested, "everyone I know is being more thoughtful about privacy settings. Even we who have grown up online are getting more savvy about it and what it means to control information about yourself. I know I shift my privacy settings all the time depending on what's happening in my life."

And a recent college graduate added that she felt part of why she and her peers were doing more with privacy settings was because Facebook has enabled "greater customizability and people capitalize on it. It's not such a new technology any more and people are figuring out how to use it better."

Though some recent articles have suggested that teens are leaving Facebook because they don't want to share a social network with their parents or because it's so yesterday, other recent data suggest otherwise. In an article in, Facebook co-founder Mark Zuckerberg stated that the company's own data don't reveal any significant decline in teenage use. A 2013 Harvard Berkman Center/Pew Internet poll conducted with a large and representative national sample found 94 percent of teens who use social media are on Facebook. That's millions of teenagers.

It seems as if the teenagers and young 20-somethings with whom I spoke might be on the same wavelength as many of their peers across the country. That same Harvard Berkman/Pew poll found that 60 percent of teenage Facebook users "set their Facebook profiles to private (friends only), and most report high levels of confidence in their ability to manage their settings." And in a fairly large study conducted in two waves at the University of Illinois by Danah Boyd and Ezster Hargittai, the researchers found that first year college students reported "far from being nonchalant and unconcerned about privacy matters, the majority of young adult users of Facebook are engaged with managing their privacy settings on the site at least to some extent. The frequency with which they adjust their settings and their confidence in doing so may vary, but most report modifying their settings."

And if teenagers aren't attending to their privacy settings, themselves, there are plenty of organizations around that offer them advice on what to do and why it's important. For example, Common Sense Media offers "8 Essential Facebook Rules for Teens." These include "keeping private information private," limiting privacy settings to friends and restricting the amount of information, pictures and videos that gets shared and with whom it gets shared, and being on the lookout for requests for personal information that comes from third parties. Even Facebook, itself, has a "Safety Center" in which it advises users that "how you present yourself on Facebook says a lot about who you are" and urges users to "think before you post," "be authentic" and offers tips for teens.

Boyd and Hargittai found that there were some differences between young people who had more experience and skill with Facebook and those who had less in terms of the ways that they deal with their privacy settings. The researchers also suggested that it's really important to try to understand more about the "relationship between what people say they do, what they actually do, and what their settings functionally mean." In other words, we need to understand more about how and why young people alter their privacy settings. And sometimes teens think they are changing their privacy settings in ways that they are actually not - and we need to understand more about this, too.

These findings have huge implications for policy makers, social media developers, parents and educators who are trying to mentor and help young people as they navigate the continually shifting world of Facebook and other social media.