With “Pruning,” Some Students Get Savvy About Managing Their Digital Footprints

January 31, 2013
Kelsey Herron
Common Sense Media
San Francisco, United States
CATEGORIES Digital Citizenship, Parents and Families, Policy, Research & Studies

A year ago, Pew Internet and American Life Project released a study investigating users’ privacy management habits on social media sites. People, it seemed, were becoming more aware of the long shelf life of comments, photos, and videos on social networks.

As NBC News columnist Bob Sullivan pointed out, the study results also gave us a new term: “pruning.” The term generally refers to managing one’s social media profile. Specifically, pruning refers to “unfriending” people, removing tags from photos, deleting comments from one’s profile page, and preventing friends from “checking you in” various places – all for the betterment one’s of public image.

We were heartened to see that younger users are particularly keen on pruning and privacy. The educators we interact with regularly are working hard to teach students about the importance of digital citizenship, including appropriate sharing and an awareness of the concept of a “digital footprint”: that what they do or say online may be permanent.

Here’s a video we offer for high school students in which Abbas, age 18, talks about smart Facebook posting and how he’s increasingly aware of how his posts might affect his chances to get into college. Videos like this add an authenticity to the curriculum when students see their peers talking about the issues, and they’re also great ice-breakers to sensitive topics.

These efforts appear to be working, particularly concerning privacy. As the Pew report noted, the share of teens and young people who are taking deliberate steps to protect their privacy has been increasing since 2009.

Close to two-thirds (62%) of teens who have a social media profile say the profile they use most often is set to be private so that only their friends can see the content they post. One in five (19%) say their profile is partially private so that friends of friends or their networks can see some version of their profile. Just 17% say their profile is set to public so that everyone can see it. This distribution is consistent regardless of how often a teen uses social network sites.

Growing numbers were being more vigilant about being tagged in photos and monitoring comments as well.

Pew found that more users of all ages were taking an active role in keeping their social media profiles private. For example, 58 percent of users claimed they use high-level privacy settings, so only friends could view their pages. Women were more likely than men to be vigilant about privacy, and about half of users said they had no difficulty figuring out privacy settings on social networks. The other half, however, thought things were confusing, and the more education one had, the more confusing things seemed.

Now, a year later – and just a few days after Data Privacy Day – let us consider how things have changed. For starters, it appears that even as users are becoming more savvy about privacy, their personal data is becoming more valuable, and it’s not always easy to figure out what sites like Facebook, Twitter, and Google are doing with that data.

On January 27, Google updated its Transparency Report with a new Q&A section outlining what happens when government and law enforcement agencies request access to private user data. According to IdeaLab writer Carl Franzen, this can include everything from Gmail and Google Documents, to YouTube accounts and users’ search histories. The policies might make a good jumping-off point for an in-class discussion.

The following day, Twitter launched a new transparency website that will house transparency reports and up-to-date information on all of the copyright notices, requests for data, and requests for content removal it receives.

Facebook has joined in as well with Ask our Chief Privacy Officer. This interactive feature allows users to anonymously write to Erin Egan, Facebook’s head of privacy policy. She will answer the questions in Facebook “notes” that will be shared from the Facebook and Privacy page, so users are just one “like” away from getting FAQs answered by Egan herself. That said, the new system has replaced users’ ability to vote on future privacy policy changes.

Facebook has been under much scrutiny, specifically by privacy advocates, since launching their latest tool, “graph search,” earlier this month. This feature uses algorithms to mine users’ personal information and recommend various products and brands to users who would benefit the most.

New York Times reporters Somini Sengupta and Claire Cain Miller explained how graph search works:

The company’s algorithms will filter search results for each person, ranking the friends and brands that it thinks a user would trust the most. At first, it will mine users’ interests, photos, check-ins and “likes,” but later it will search through other information, including status updates.

Clearly, the issue of privacy is an ongoing one. It will take continual vigilance as new tools emerge along with new issues. And the issues will be pertinent for younger and younger children, as indicated by the recent FCC interest in apps for kids and the advertisers who follow them. Parents may want to bone up. After all, according to a Pew survey in November 2012, 55 percent of parents have not read a privacy policy of the site their child was using. Here’s a place to start—our resources for parents.