Social media sites like Facebook have become a ubiquitous presence in the lives of young people and many parents may worry that their children are giving away too much information.

However, technology experts say there is little substantial risk in the online personas being tailored by image-savvy teenagers who post pictures and details of their social lives. On the other hand, the longevity of online material can have a long-term impact on the lives of young people.

"From the perspective of youth, the main concern is overexposure or embarrassment, which is to say that people are concerned that what they post online will be seen by unintended audiences," said Matthew Johnson, director of education at the Media Awareness Network, a non-profit organization that promotes digital literacy among Canadians.

Often, this unintended audience includes parents and authority figures, but the content can also be distributed to a wider audience for malicious reasons.

"We frequently see things that were meant to be kept private, or limited to one or a small group of people, being made public and that is one of the more common forms of cyberbullying," he said.

'[Young people] seem to be thinking about privacy a lot more than other generations.' —Jennifer Stoddart, Privacy Commissioner

Young people are generally aware of the risks of posting information online, Johnson said.

And this may be the result of a generational divide, with parents and grandparents unable to understand how social media has become merely an extension of the lives of teenagers, he said.

For instance, a study released on Aug. 25 by the Office of the Privacy Commissioner found those aged 18 to 34 are more likely to use social media sites, but are also more likely to be aware of and to use restrictive privacy controls compared to older Canadians.

Privacy Commissioner Jennifer Stoddart said evidence suggests that teenagers in high school may be more aware of potential problems than their parents.

"They seem to be thinking about privacy a lot more than other generations did from what we can observe, and this seems to me because this demographic is overwhelmingly on social media," she said.

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"It’s really part of their lives, part of their social experience, so they’re forced to confront privacy issues more often," she said.

Teens tech savvy, but also less mature

Kate Raynes-Goldie, who is completing her PhD in the department of internet studies at the Curtin University of Technology in Australia, said youth are the focus of most of the social media scandals because they were the first to embrace it.

Unintended consequences

One of the biggest concerns cited by young people, experts say, is that information that is meant to be private ends up becoming public.

That was certainly the case for one teenager in Germany who created a Facebook event for her birthday party but ended up making the event public. The invite when viral and 15,000 said they would attend, the Associated Press reported in June.

Only 1,500 or so showed despite the fact the girl’s parents made her take down the post, told police and hired a private security firm for protection.

The party, which stayed on the street in front of the home, was fairly tame although several suffered cuts on their feet from broken bottles and one of the 100 police officers who attended was injured when he tried to stop a partier from stealing the Mercedes-Benz logo off his car.

"Most early adopters of social media have been youth. I think it gives a skewed view of what’s going on," she said, adding there is no shortage of adults who have lost jobs because of inappropriate pictures posted online.

However, Johnson cautioned that although teens may be more familiar with the technology, they are also less mature and more likely to take risks in terms of what they post.

And the nearly limitless life of online material means information will be around for years to come.

For Stoddart, this is the biggest threat facing young Canadians in terms of privacy.

"The idea that something you do at 12 will haunt you when you’re 42, to many observers that doesn’t seem fair," she said. "It doesn’t take into account the human experience of growing, of maturing, of changing."

Being a teenager is primarily about experimentation and, often times, learning from mistakes, Stoddart said. But it’s unique for that any errors in judgment — from angsty teenage political rants to evidence of less than scrupulous social activities — can exist in perpetuity.

Johnson said this is another example of information getting out to the wrong people.

"Sometimes the unintended audiences are people right now that you didn’t think would see it, and sometimes the unintended audiences are people seeing it five or 10 years from now," including prospective employers, said Johnson, many of whom routinely do online searches of potential applicants.

Need to develop digital literacy skills

Johnson said parents should be gently mindful of what their children are up to online.

Maintain open communication, he said, and, above all, do not "freak out" if children come looking for help.  Johnson said some studies have shown that teens will often refuse to come to parents for fear of having their internet connection taken away.

Raynes-Goldie said parents should also be wary of being too restrictive in terms of exposure to the internet, because children need to develop digital literacy skills so they can learn what is safe and what is not. And they cannot do that in a vaccuum.

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Privacy Commissioner Jennifer Stoddart presents her annual report to the Commons privacy and ethics committee on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Oct. 19, 2010. ((Canadian Press))

Stoddart said teenagers are interested in managing their privacy but they want to do it on their own, adding that there is information available, including on the Privacy Commissioner’s website, that is aimed at teaching young people about the perils of sharing personal stories and pictures.

"They want the information but they want to make their own choice, which I think is normally what that age group is moving towards," she said.

Johnson said his organization tries to teach young people to think about what they post before putting it online because that is the only way to prevent it from getting out. 

Even with restrictive security settings, Johnson said, information can still be leaked by a single recipient — where it can spread to anyone and exist virtually forever.

"In the final analysis, the only way to control information is to decide what you’re posting and what you’re not posting," he said.

And as sites like Facebook become ever more popular, with many parents and grandparents joining, understanding the privacy risks is only going to become more important, Stoddart said.

"It’s learning about a new behaviour, it’s learning about how do you modulate your behaviour, your choices given that we all live with this next technology," she said.