Why do teens post such personal information online for all the world to see? The burning question of the first decade of the 21st century, perhaps – at least for parents and other digital non-natives. I’m late in pointing you to this, but “Exposed,” a recent cover story of the New York Times Magazine looks at “oversharing” in the full, seemingly unedited story of Emily (Gould) the 20-something compulsive blogger. Her story suggests that the answer may partly be the reality TV phenomenon (“that the surest route to recognition is via humiliation in front of a panel of judges,” aka random readers); genetics (“some people have always been more naturally inclined toward oversharing than others … technology just enables us to overshare on a different scale”); a twisted concept of free speech acted out (“I kept coming back to the idea that I had a right to say whatever I wanted”); and crying out for attention. I agreed with her when she wrote: “I don’t think people write online exclusively because they crave attention.”
In any case, overexposure phenomenon is probably not going away – partly because diaries and journals will never go away and partly because the audience (or the imagined audience) certainly won’t. As Emily told a Times reader in a Q&A the paper later published, “It’s probably a pretty safe bet that people will continue to make mistakes online – after all, there is absolutely nothing stopping them from doing so besides themselves. This is the best and worst thing about the blogosphere,” she continues, referring to its readers. “Other people’s mistakes, which is to say, their impulsively revealed thoughts and opinions, can be fascinating.”
Though there is pressure on young people to express themselves digitally, this doesn’t mean oversharing is what social networking is all about and it doesn’t mean all children will. The way teens express themselves online is highly individual. It also might help parents to know that privacy is no more black & white where personal blogging’s concerned than is life itself. Emily refers to an important book that points this out: “I’m reading an interesting book right now about reputation and the Internet by Daniel Solove, and in it he posits that we’ve traditionally thought of privacy as a binary: private vs. public. He thinks that we should begin to think of degrees of semi-privacy, in terms of both self-regulation and legal regulation.” And teens reportedly are already thinking in terms of degrees of privacy as well as of fact and fiction. For them, the latter isn’t binary either: they add degrees of privacy by fictionalizing parts of what they present of themselves (see “Online aliases” and “Social networkers: Thinking about privacy”).
But back to Emily’s reference to “self-regulation.” Isn’t that where parenting comes in? Teaching (and hopefully modeling) self-regulation, as our rules for them are replaced by the trust they earn? It’s not so much about shutting the blog or a compulsion down, maybe, as it is about providing perspective on privacy and self-respect. What has much more lasting value to them is helping them think about how broad their audience may actually (or ultimately) be, what image they’re presenting of themselves now and when people encounter their content in the future, and how little control they have over what can happen to comments once online.