Do teenagers care about their online reputation?

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During these last ten years as the head of the Safer Internet Centre in Spain, within the framework of the European Commission’s SIP (Safer Internet Programme), I have heard all sorts of opinions and statements in a great number of forums, meetings, conferences and the like. Some of them have certainly been very enriching, but others didn’t have reasonable grounds. At times I have heard opinions that could be summed up as follows: “Teenagers are thoughtless, unaware of the implications they will suffer from what they post in the Internet or who simply don’t care at all”. I believe this is the right time and place to pinpoint some aspects related to this topic.

Not only teenagers care about what adults call “online reputation”, but they care about it even more than adults themselves. And the reason that explains this has been known for a long time: the teen years are the human developmental stage in which we attach the greatest importance to other people’s opinion. It is the stage in which we are more sensitive to the statements and assertions other people make about us. Anyone with a basic knowledge of child psychology is aware of this.

When two schoolmates belonging to a group of friends have an argument and “get angry”, the issue becomes the trending topic inside the group, its members do not talk about anything else for days. If a teenager is not invited to a friend’s birthday party, her parents will witness a true drama. If two teenagers going out together split up… better not think about it! Peers take up nearly 100% of teenagers’ attention, nearly all their thoughts and most of their time. Any parent with a teenager at home could write a whole book on the subject.

For teenagers, what their friends and acquaintances say, do and think in relation to them is of outmost importance. In the adult age things are different. And the reason for this difference, apart from all the explanations that may be found from the point of view of psychology, is offered by our brain. Several studies analyzing teenager brain scans reveal the following: the areas of the teenager’s brain that become active when s/he is excluded from the peer group are the same areas that become active if there is a threat to his/her life or if there is food shortage (survival). This means that being excluded from the group is perceived by teenagers, at the neuronal level, as a threat to their existence. So it is a serious matter…

From the age of 20 the importance young people attach to their peers’ opinions reaches the levels it has in adults, as happens also with other features of the teen years.

Then the question we should consider is:

For what reason do a high percentage of teenagers provide sensitive information on the Internet that may end up being detrimental to them?

I do believe this is true. In general teenagers post a lot of information and many images about their life. For some teenagers it becomes a true diary they show to their friends and acquaintances. But this is NOT because they do not care about their online reputation or about what other people may think about them. It is quite the contrary. They care so much about those issues that they use all that information to obtain a greater acceptance and sometimes popularity. It is a concession. Teenagers know they are giving up part of their private life, sometimes an important part of it, but they do so because they expect to get something in exchange. They expect to achieve a result. It is not just exhibitionism. The greater a person’s integration into the group is, the more likely it is for that person to succeed in all sorts of aspects: from finding a partner all the way to getting notes from class or receiving the invaluable help of friends when a teenager is threatened of being beaten after school.

Teenagers are not “a bunch of thoughtless children”, as some people say. Most of them (although not all of them) already know that some information and images are more sensitive or risky than others. More and more, they look after the privacy level of their profile and do not accept all friend requests in social media. As they receive more information from their environment and as they have more experiences –both positive and negative–, they become more careful and selective.

But I insist: THEY ARE NOT THOUGHTLESS. They know that driving a car at a certain speed in a city implies a high risk. They know drinking alcohol harms them. They know that posting certain pictures will lead to other people commenting on them: the very same picture that would make their parents punish them if they saw it may increase their popularity among their friends.

And this is not just my personal view. Just as we know that for teenagers their friends’ opinion is nearly vital, we also know that the way they perceive risk is similar to the way adults perceive it. A great number of studies highlight this and I will mention one of the best. Laurence Steinberg, Psychology professor in the Temple University, has proven in several fashions that teenagers employ the same basic cognitive strategies than adults, and that they generally solve their problems reasoning with the same ability. He has verified that young people do not take many risks when they are on their own, but only when they are accompanied by their friends or peers. That is to say, they take risks when they expect to obtain recognition from doing something risky, as Steinberg points out: “they take risks, not because they stop recognising danger, but because they attach a greater importance to the reward”. 

If we wish to understand why teenagers act in a certain manner, and then apply that knowledge in order to develop appropriate prevention strategies, we must leave behind archaic concepts, prejudices, clichés and set phrases that do not offer any positive contributions at all. Teenagers are not thoughtless children who do not care at all about their online reputation. It is quite the contrary. They are so concerned about it that they are willing to take some risks for the sake of improving their level of acceptance, integration and success within their peer group, which is what they are most concerned about during the stage they are going through. As simple as that.

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