A False Sense of Online Privacy

Harvard University recently revealed that it had rescinded admissions offers to at least 10 students who shared offensive images on a private Facebook group chat. The students posted memes and images mocking things like minority groups, child abuse, sexual assault and the Holocaust.

Because a lot of social media teens use today is focused on not getting caught, many teens have tried to go through different routes in order to keep themselves safe. Closed and secret Facebook groups are one way of having privatized conversations with people. The group is monitored by moderators and posts are typically submitted for approval; plus, these groups can’t be searched on Facebook, you must have an invite.

There are also apps like Vaulty, which allows users to hide photos and videos, and also has a “mug shot” feature, which takes a photo of anyone who tries to to access the app and gets the password wrong. With these types of apps, students can hide any photos and videos they wish from parents or administrators, and, with Vaulty, users can even create two passwords for one vault; each of these passwords can lead to different levels of the app, so a teen can give up the “fake” password without really giving the main password.

These tools lead to teens oversharing images, videos and commentary. Unfortunately, or fortunately depending on your angle, these tools are not proven to be very reliable, and information shared with a private Facebook group can still be captured in a screenshot and shared to anyone.

So, if nothing is truly safe online, what causes people to act so recklessly online? Well, many people view engagement on posts as a source of popularity, even within these closed groups (maybe even more so because the groups are more like a small group of friends). Often, teens, and even adults, get caught in a feedback loop, posting and sharing posts that will gain the largest reaction. This may even mean that the person’s values become diluted and these posts may not truly reflect what they themselves believe.

In a recent study, researchers at the University of California, Los Angeles, found that the areas of teens’ brains focused on reward processing and social cognition are similarly activated when they think about money – and when they view a photo receiving lots of likes on social media.

The conversation should be shifted around teens’ social media use away from the fear of getting caught and more toward healthy socialization, effective self-regulation and overall safety.


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