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The public life of our youth

Posted by Dr. Claire McCarthy  October 25, 2013 07:12 AM

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Thumbnail image for Screen Shot 2013-10-24 at 4.35.51 PM.pngIt's entirely possible for a complete stranger to know more about what a teen is doing than his parents do. And what's even scarier about this is that it's going to be the reality of life for this next generation.

Facebook recently announced that 13 to 17-year-olds who are setting up new accounts will have an option to make their posts public. That means completely public, so that anyone can see them. Anyone. 

To offset this, the default setting will be more private than it used to be: instead of having posts be visible to both friends and friends of friends, they will just be visible to friends. And if teens decide to change the setting to public for any posts, they will get warnings asking them if they are really sure they want to do it. 

Given that 94 percent of youth are on Facebook, if parents haven't talked to their kids about being public, it's time they did so.

I think that teens actually have a reasonable sense about this stuff, better than most of us grownups--if only because they navigate it more than we do. And studies out of Pew Internet and the Berkman Center (Harvard's Institute for Internet and Society) showed that youth do care about privacy and take steps to protect it--and do look for guidance about what they should do when it comes to privacy. 

And they do need guidance. Not the finger-wagging, keep-everything-private kind. That's not helpful. The world is a different place now; communication is more instantaneous, visual, and public. We can be connected in ways that we never could have imagined a decade ago. This has staggering implications for how we can make the world smaller, learn from each other and help each other.

It also has implications for information overload, distraction--and privacy.

I live a pretty public life on social media--and I have adapted to being public. I think carefully about everything I post; if there is anybody in the world I wouldn't want to see it, or if I think it might come back to bite me in some way ever, I don't post it. Same goes for anything I post about my kids (which is something I think some parents should think about a bit more).

That's what we need to help our kids understand--and they do need our help. When the drama, impulsivity and, um, judgment issues of adolescents go public, well, talk about implications. Most of the time those implications aren't big. But they can be, as the recent suicide of a cyberbullied 12-year-old and the arrests of her tormentors demonstrated.

It's all about thinking before you post--and behaving well and kindly. Which is hard when you are an adolescent (and not necessarily easy when you are a grownup). But as the line between private and public life blurs or even disappears, behaving well--and kindly--becomes even more important. We need to have lots of conversations with our youth about this, every chance we get.

It's not just about online behavior, either--it's about behavior in real-life public too. Anything we do or say can get publicized rather quickly and out of context. The concept of "behind closed doors" is vanishing along with that line between public and private. This is an even harder concept to grasp, this idea of trying to live so that you are above reproach and have nothing to hide. But it's a concept we need to talk to our youth about--and one we could miss if we only talk about online behaviors.

Our children are going to grow up in a far more public way than we did. This is inescapably true. There's no online privacy setting to fix that, and that's what we need to help our children understand. Being public isn't just a Facebook setting thing; it's a way of life.

Is there something you'd like me to write about? Leave me a message on my Facebook page--and "like" the page for links to all my MD Mama blogs as well as my blogs on Thriving and Huffington Post. 

This blog is not written or edited by or the Boston Globe.
The author is solely responsible for the content.

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About MD Mama

Claire McCarthy, M.D., is a pediatrician and Medical Communications Editor at Boston Children's Hospital . An assistant professor of pediatrics at Harvard Medical School and a senior editor for Harvard More »

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