News Column

Professors Say There Is No Privacy on Social Media Websites

January 22, 2013

Ed Runyan

Through the decades, Americans have experienced numerous changes in technology that adults felt posed dangers to children and young adults -- radio and television, for example.

"TV was supposed to ruin us, but we're still here," said Adam Earnheardt, assistant professor of communication at Youngstown State University.

Today's technology includes the Internet, social media websites, such as Facebook and Twitter, and dangers of using them that many young people don't perceive, Earnheardt says.

Evidence of such danger hit Warren Township twice last week, when high school students posted comments on Facebook considered threatening to the safety of students and staff at two local high schools, something not taken lightly in the weeks after the Dec. 14 elementary-school massacre in Newtown, Conn.

Both Warren Township students -- a 16-year-old girl from LaBrae High School and a 19-year-old man from Trumbull Career and Technical Center -- were charged with inducing panic.

Earnheardt said he believes a combination of youthful shortsightedness and lack of understanding contributes to mistakes like those made by the two local students.

"We should be instructing young people on the adverse effects of social media and what they possibly could mean to their future," Earnheardt said.

"Part of the problem is teachers barely have enough time for the basics of reading, writing and arithmetic, and now we're asking them to throw in how to treat your Facebook posts," he said.

Earnheardt said some young people may not understand how readily a comment posted on Facebook can be seen by someone the writer never intended.

"If I'm a friend of a friend, I can get access," he said.

For example, a person posting a comment on Facebook might have only 10 friends, but one of them might have hundreds of friends, and that potentially makes your comment available to all of those people, Earnheardt said.

Just as relevant for teens might be impulsive behavior or immaturity.

"We're dealing with people whose brains are not fully developed. They have trouble seeing the dangers. Teens have a hard enough time thinking of the ramifications of one or two days down the road, let alone five, 10 years down the road," Earnheardt said.

Adults can find it "shocking" to learn what types of comments teens make on Facebook and Twitter, but provocative pictures and comments are "the new social norm for this generation," he said.

"For a lot of students that age, I don't think there is the same sensitivity to the dangers we have" as adults, Earnheardt said.

The best action for educators, most of whom know less about social media than the students, may be to "start the conversation" with their students, and "let them guide the conversation, set the norms, so the students are thinking, 'Should I post this, or should I say it face to face instead of to the whole world?'"

Earnheardt said some of his students at the university have told him that they've deleted their Facebook or Twitter accounts because of provocative photos or comments they posted in the past.

In one case, he saw a comment by one of his students in which she was "raving about a party, getting drunk, saying 'I'm going to have to blow off my test tomorrow,'" Earnheardt said.

It wasn't his class, but it demonstrates how easily such information can get into the wrong hands, he said.

Patrick J. Bateman, assistant professor in the Williamson College of Business Management at YSU, said social media present new risks.

People present themselves differently depending on the group they are addressing, such as friends, family or co-workers. Those groups usually didn't come in contact with one another much before social media came along, he said.

"What social media has done is reduce the boundaries that let each group get a glimpse of other parts of one's life," Bateman said.

"People are disclosing information for one audience and not considering the other audience that may use it."

Before social media, people made provocative remarks face to face and sometimes got into trouble for it.

But when those same comments are posted on a website, "The deniability of saying, 'I never never said it' is gone," Bateman said.

"People will say, 'I didn't want them to see it,' but that's not how it works," the professor said. "Even if it's private, it won't stop someone from sharing it with the world.

"I tell students if you post it on Facebook, assume it's like posting it on a billboard."

It's not just teens who've made mistakes on social media websites, Bateman noted. There are many stories of adults being fired from their job for comments about their employer that fell into the wrong hands.

It's also no secret that employers and other organizations use social media to "cyber vet" candidates for jobs, scholarships or other things.

"Human-resources people are making it a part of the process, and organizations are wrestling with how to use" the information they gather, some of it protected by privacy laws, such as a candidate's age or sexual orientation, Bateman said.

His advice is to carefully manage the information you put out on the Internet to make sure it presents you favorably.

Source: (c)2013 Vindicator (Youngstown, Ohio). Distributed by MCT Information Services

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