Facebook sharing for teens is a trial and error lesson with digital consequences - let them learn

Mark Leiser: I am a PhD Candidate in Cyber Law at the University of Strathclyde in Glasgow. I have written submissions for the Leveson Inquiry into the culture and ethics of the media and for the Scottish Parliament on the use of social media during trials. My PhD is supervised by Professor Andrew Murray at the London School of Economics and focuses on the effectiveness of cyber-regulation. My research and interests revolve around main areas of Internet law and policy including internet governance & regulation, democracy, social media, privacy, and intellectual property. My PhD research focuses on developing a system of modelling to measure the effectiveness and legitimacy of Internet Regulation. I write in a personal capacity.

Facebook lifted its sharing restrictions on 13-to-17-year-olds this week, causing a section of social media users to stand up and scream everything from ‘this is about the monetisation of advertising to children’ to ‘this is a move in the wrong direction’ from anti-bullying campaigners.

Unrestricted: Facebook now allows teens to share more content

Of course, statistics from the NSPCC show that 90 per cent of cases child sexual abuse are committed by someone inside the family or a person already known to the child. In an earlier piece for The Drum, I argued that in order to conceptualise how teenagers engage with social media, one has to understand the risks teenagers perceive from sharing information online. I called these ‘transactional costs’. Because parents monitor sites like Facebook, teenagers are moving towards smaller niche platforms like Snapchat, Instagram, and Tumblr. Essentially, teens being tracked by their parents through what they shared on Facebook came with too steep a price.

For Facebook, it appears to be about amending the terms and conditions to tap into the valuable teen market and access important revenues from advertising.

“It’s all about monetisation and being where the public dialogue is,” said Jeff Chester, executive director of the Center for Digital Democracy, a group that lobbies against marketing to children. “To the extent that Facebook encourages people to put everything out there, it’s incredibly attractive to Facebook’s advertisers.”

Recently, Jon Henley wrote a piece in the Guardian about how teenagers share everything. Although he is correct about today’s children being ‘digital natives’, I respectfully disagree with the contention that teenagers share everything. Teenagers are digitally suave about what they share and how they share it. I don’t think he makes that distinction. Rather the opposite is true, and it goes back to the transaction cost of sharing information online.

As easy as it is to pick on Facebook, there is credence in Simon Milner, director of policy for Facebook UK, Ireland, Africa when he claims: “One of the requests we hear direct from teenagers most often is the ability to share things in a public way, just as they can on other services.

“The way young people use the web has changed a lot in the last few years, including how they use Facebook. They're expert at controlling who can see what they say and do on Facebook. We therefore needed to give young people the chance to use it in new ways - whether they want to tell the world about a cause they care about, a new band they've discovered or the film they watched last night.”

It appears as if Facebook is simply reacting to the market. The ‘digital natives’ are already sharing on lots of other social media sites like the aforementioned picture messaging service Snapchat, photo sharing app Instagram, and video sharing service Vine.

The key for Facebook is to determine whether the kids get both autonomy and continue the education that is necessary for participating in sharing through social media. It’s likely that there will be some high-profile cases where a kid makes a horrible mistake, but for once it will not be about the default settings that people criticise Facebook for, but rather for giving teenagers the empowerment to be autonomous and find out that social media is simply a digital form of trial and error with electronic consequences.

Facebook is only making available to teenagers what they are already doing anyway. While they may be hiding the juicy details away from mum and dad, Facebook wants to empower them with the ability to do it on their network, rather than the niche social media sites.

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