Ravicha Ravinthiran watched video clips of Mark Zuckerberg’s congressional testimony earlier this month with amusement.
To Ravinthiran, a 17-year-old high-school student, the questions some of the U.S. senators posed to Facebook’s chief executive seemed to reveal a lack of understanding about how the social-media site works.
“Their perception of what’s going on is kind of funny,” says Ravinthiran, an ambassador for the digital-literacy program Teens Learning Code from Scarborough, Ont. “I was watching a video of one of the senators – it was a lady, I don’t know her name – but I don’t think she really understood what was going on.”
Unlike U.S. senators, whose average age is around 62, Ravinthiran and her peers have grown up with Facebook, and from a young age, they’ve been drilled about the importance of protecting their online privacy. Multiple polls and studies have indicated that even though they spend many of their waking hours on Facebook, Snapchat, Instagram and other social-media platforms, teens tend to be cautious about the information they share online – and are often more careful than their parents assume. According to a 2016 survey by the U.S. private-public partnership National Cyber Security Alliance, nearly half of teens aged 13 to 17 said they were “very concerned” about security issues, such as someone accessing their account without permission or sharing personal information about them online.
When it comes to online privacy, teens can, in some ways, be more conservative and more knowledgeable than their elders. Indeed, Ravinthiran says she sometimes chides her own parents to tighten their security settings on their Facebook accounts.
In light of recent revelations that the British firm Cambridge Analytica may have improperly obtained data from around 87 million Facebook users, we asked three tech-savvy teens to share their top tips for protecting digital privacy.
Know that anything that goes online can stay online, possibly forever
This is a lesson that Liat Fainman-Adelman, 19, was taught early and often. And it’s something she has passed on to the elderly clients of her company SeniorIT, which provides one-on-one lessons for older adults wanting to know how to better use their computers. She launched the organization at the age of 16.
Fainman-Adelman, who is now a student at Queen’s University, explains that older adults aren’t likely to share the same worries that she and her peers have about how their online footprint may affect their future career prospects. Among underage teens, for instance, even photos posted of them with an alcoholic beverage in their hand could potentially hurt their chances with an employer, she says.
But regardless of whether you’re just starting your career or long retired, it’s a good rule of thumb to pause and think before you share anything online, she says. While it may be possible to try to delete posts that you regret, you can never be certain they won’t resurface to haunt you.
“Make sure that, every single thing you’re posting online, you’re aware that at some point, somewhere, it can probably be dug up,” she says.
Don’t divulge more information than necessary
Ravinthiran warns against constantly updating your status to reveal what you’re doing and where you’re going. She has heard of family friends who learned this the hard way; they posted on social media about where they were going, and were subsequently robbed.
“So I’m like yeah, you shouldn’t be doing that because then everyone knows where you’re going, where you’re going to be, at what certain time,” she says.
Mathurah Ravigulan, 16, who is also a Scarborough ambassador and mentor for Teens Learning Code, advises against giving out your phone number on social media as well. When signing up for a website or app, only give as much information as is absolutely required, she says.
For example, when she downloads apps onto her mobile phone, the apps often ask to track her location. Ravigulan almost always selects “no,” unless it’s necessary for the function of the app, such as when it’s a map or transportation app.
“If it doesn’t require your location, don’t share it,” she says. (And if you do use apps that require your location, see next section below.)
Check your privacy settings
When Fainman-Adelman helps her clients set up their Facebook accounts, she guides them through the basics of how to change their privacy settings, depending on how accessible they want their posts and photos to be – whether it’s viewable to the public, only friends, friends of friends or only themselves.
Ravigulan goes a step further, and turns off any tracking functions of the apps on her phone when she’s not using them. This can be done by going into the privacy settings and switching the tracking off.
She notes that apps such as Snapchat can allow her to see exactly where her friends are, right down to their location on a street. To avoid this, she uses Snapchat in “ghost mode.” Otherwise, she says, “I find it too invasive.”
Avoid Facebook quizzes and games
Ravinthiran says her friends were recently obsessed with an online quiz that tested how well they knew each other. She was drawn into playing along, until she became uncomfortable with how personal the questions were. “I’m like, ‘No, I’m out.’ I don’t really trust this.”
She says as a rule, she avoids games and personality tests on Facebook altogether. “I’m not that interested in giving a random company or someone I don’t know that information,” she says. Ravinthiran suggests if you really want to participate in an online quiz, read the fine print beforehand.
Go ‘incognito’ when shopping online
For an experiment in her economics class, Ravigulan and her friend pretended to book a plane ticket online to see how their previous online shopping habits affected the prices they were given. For Ravigulan, who did more online shopping than her friend, the same plane ticket was more expensive.
To try to prevent such price discrimination and targeted advertisements based on your buying habits, Ravigulan suggests using an “incognito” window of your web browser when you’re shopping online. In “incognito” mode for the popular browser Chrome, your browsing history is not recorded. (Chrome says it doesn’t save your browsing history or the information you enter in forms, and your cookies and site data are deleted when you’re finished browsing. But it doesn’t guarantee your privacy. As the company explains, your activity can still be visible to websites you visit, to your employer or whoever runs the network you’re using and your internet service provider.)
Be skeptical about unknown individuals contacting you
If someone you don’t recognize sends you a “friend request” on Facebook, Fainman-Adelman recommends checking to see who your mutual friends are, and to look through their photos and posts before accepting. The more mutual friends you have, the greater the chances are that friend request comes from someone you truly know, she explains.
If you see that most of their pictures and posts were uploaded within the last day, that may be an indicator that it’s not a real profile, she says.