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Teen code: Canadian kids make own rules online

The four teens go silent the moment I ask. Just seconds before, their laughter resounded above the rush of the noontime crowd at this Halifax high school as crews of girls and boys bounced about the cafeteria’s rows of tables, in and out of the nearby hallway. Now the four of them just sit with frozen expressions.

“Yeaaaahh…” a boy named Pietro finally says, slyly.

Three girls, Laura, Lucie and Sophia, sitting around him, begin to giggle. Work sheets scribbled with chemistry equations spill out from binders that are splayed across the table beneath several iPhones.

Again, I ask whether any of their online photos could get them in trouble.

The girls let out a few laughs.

“Ah … nothing,” says Sophia, stopping herself.

Laura and Lucie stare at her from across the table.

“There was a bad picture,” Sophia begins, before being cut off by Lucie.

“You’re just like this,” Lucie says, tilting her head back and quickly shaking her hand above her mouth, gesturing what can only be the motion of chugging a drink.

“It’s not a bad picture, you’re not falling,” she says before Sophia jumps in.

“I’m not talking about my picture!” the red-cheeked 17-year-old blurts out.

I never actually see the picture the girls are talking about, but Sophia’s embarrassment has more than answered my original question.

Today, nearly 100 per cent of Grade 11 students have a Facebook account, according to a 2014 study by MediaSmarts, a group dedicated to researching digital literacy issues among young Canadians, and roughly 85 per cent of students own a cellphone.

That puts the ability to manage their reputation — and each other’s — at their fingertips, leading to a culture in which teens are now policing teens, choosing when and whether to capture and broadcast each other’s youthful indiscretions.

That has left parents and experts wondering what these technologies that exist as digital track records mean for those rebellious teenage years.

A code among peers

Halifax friends Morgan and Rachel outline a checklist they follow: First, are you friends with this person? And second, does the photo make her look good?

If the answer to either is “no,” an unspoken courtesy exists to ask a person’s permission first, a gesture both girls tell me they do and expect done in return.

In a recent study of more than 5,000 teens, nine out of 10 said they expect to be asked permission before someone posted their photo that could be considered negative, says Matthew Johnson, director of education for MediaSmarts.

Teens are aware of the risks of sharing online material, Johnson says. He notes the exhaustive lengths most teens undergo to customize their privacy settings and delete content in order to curate their accounts so as not to cause trouble with parents, but also maintain a “perfect” image with their peers.

“Adolescence is naturally a time for pushing boundaries. It’s a time when kids naturally want to be at least partially away from the supervision of their parents and teachers.”

Their primary concern is what digital ethnographers call “context collapse” — a term that describes how tone, behaviours or motivations that are easily interpreted in face-to-face communication get lost in social technologies when a photo or comment is posted online.

As a result, Johnson says, apps that promise temporality, such as Snapchat — in which photo and video messages vanish after viewing them — are soaring in popularity among teens because they are an “escape valve” from the demands of their self-surveillance.

“It removes that need to think very carefully about the impression that you’re making. It lets you be casual in a way that you really can’t with Facebook or Twitter where something is expected to be permanent.”

Teens and permanence

It was the day after a party when Marlisa first saw the video.

Recordings of the 17-year-old vomiting at a high school party from January began circulating through Snapchat. Despite the app’s design to erase messages, teens figured out ways to save photos.

Because she was drunk, Marlisa says, she has little memory of what happened.

“I was like, ‘Oh my God,’ but I didn’t feel bad because I was drunk so, like, there’s an excuse,” she says. “Because I’m of the age of, like, this is what you would expect.”

Digital permanence is the most difficult lesson for teens to learn in digital literacy, Johnson says.

He said most teens grasp the basics: Online content can be viewed by unintended third parties and then copied and reproduced without their knowledge.

“When we talk about digital permanence, it’s frequently phrased in terms of, ‘A teacher might see this,’ or ‘An admissions officer might see this,’ or ‘A future employer might see this,’” he said.

But that’s the crux of the problem: The struggle to get teens to consider long-term consequences, not simply what their friends might think, which Johnson says was a challenge well before the invention of social media.

“Obviously permanence is general and is a difficult idea for teens. It’s not in their nature to see too far beyond the horizon.”

The perceived tendency for teens to over-share also points to the boundaries (or lack thereof) that young people are still in the midst of developing throughout adolescence, says teen clinical psychologist Dr. Larry Borins.

Learning where to draw the line or what to share and with whom is all the harder to navigate for a generation whose communication also happens digitally.

“(Social media) is a platform to get attention,” Borins said. “It’s a microphone, more like a megaphone. Anything that is expressed off-screen is just amplified onscreen.”

‘The past is the past, right?’

Laura pauses from sending a text to explain that as an exchange student from Colombia, she was advised to purge her online accounts of any inappropriate material before coming to Halifax.

“Here, you come to a host family. They don’t know you. So they’re going through your Facebook. You don’t want them to see you drinking or partying or anything like that.

“If there’s a picture of you drinking, you wouldn’t want it on your Facebook because you could go home.”

Minutes later, the table of four friends erupts in a chorus of “Oh yeah” when I ask if they will be embarrassed by what they see of themselves online by the time they’re my age.

“No regrets for that,” adds Pietro. “The past is the past, right?”

Mistakes and their fallout

Larry Borins, a teen clinical psychologist in Toronto, is as stumped as other experts when it comes to whether young people can afford to make mistakes in an age when their actions can be recorded and shared virally, and what effect it will have on them as adults.

“Adolescence is all about learning from mistakes and taking risks,” he says. “Teens are stepping out into the unknown and they’re learning stuff about themselves through that process.”

One possibility is young people may find themselves afraid to take as many risks — a hard but necessary reality he speculates will be required to meet the demands of an increasingly online world.

“Once it’s printed, once it’s out there, you can’t retract it; you can’t take it down,” he says.

However, Matthew Johnson, director of education for MediaSmarts, says unlike previous generations, teenagers’ friends (along with their antics) are now colliding with their family and employers as never before through social media, which could lead to a sort of normalization.

Having said that, his answer to resolving issues around online permanence is simple: better education.

“As parents, we have to recognize that teaching (teens) to curate their online identity is also teaching them to be able to hide things from us,” he says, noting that’s a natural part of adolescence.

“That’s why it’s so important at the same time as we teach them to manage their online privacy, we also make sure to respect their online privacy and reassure them that we have their back, rather than spying over their shoulder.”

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