What do kids know about online privacy?

Much of the anxiety around tweens and social media lies in the fear that they don’t care about or understand privacy settings. Parents worry that kids will either willingly or unintentionally expose themselves to dangerous anonymous predators, or that they don’t fully understand that the information they share about themselves can be used against them.

But tweens are much more savvy about their privacy settings than adults give them credit for, even when it comes to subtleties of “frenemies” dynamics, according to a small, qualitative study by researchers at the Harvard Graduate School of Education that’s forthcoming in the journal

“Tweens value privacy, seek privacy from both strangers and known others online, and use a variety of strategies to protect their privacy online,” write researchers Katie Davis and Carrie James, who conducted in-depth interviews with 42 middle-school students for the study. “Tweens’ online privacy concerns are considerably broader than the ‘stranger danger’ messages they report hearing from teachers.”

Most kids are well aware of risks, and make “fairly sophisticated” decisions about privacy settings based on advice and information from their parents, teachers, and friends. They differentiate between people they don’t know out in the world (distant strangers) and those they don’t know in the community, such as high school students in their hometown (near strangers). Marisa, for example, a 10-year old interviewed in the study (who technically is not allowed to use Facebook), “enjoys participating in virtual worlds and using instant messenger and Facebook to socialize with her friends — and is keenly aware of the risks — especially those related to privacy.” She’s doesn’t share highly sensitive personal information on her Facebook profile and actively blocks certain people.

Most of the kids interviewed admit that they withhold some information even from their friends. One 12-year-old said she wanted to protect herself from people “who like to start drama.”

And they recognize privacy breach from adults, too. “Like one day, I was using my phone and [my teacher] took it from me and they went through my texts to see who I was texting,” one tween told the researchers.

A 14-year-old said, “I just want it to be like a teenager world…Because you do talk about your teachers or your parents and … what they’re doing, and how it frustrates you and gets you mad and stuff.”

In terms of strategies for privacy, 90 percent of the tweens said they don’t include their full names, addresses, phone numbers, and birth dates (only day and month, not the year). About 36 percent said they embedded false information to protect their privacy, and some did so as suggested by their parents.

But it’s worth noting that five of the 42 interviewed either didn’t know about specific or general privacy settings on Facebook, or hadn’t bothered to adjust them