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Teens: Everything Online is Forever Privacy

Teens & Privacy: Everything Online or in an App Can Last Forever

Hey teens, I have something to tell you and it may not be something you want to hear. Sorry about that in advance. But actually what I have to say is good for everyone to hear, because I’m sure the misconceptions about online privacy don’t end just with your age group.

In talking with many teenagers over the past few years, it’s become clear that some of you don’t understand what privacy is, why you should value it, and why you might want to think twice about it. As the Kyle Kashuv case illustrates, nothing that you think is private today will necessarily stay that way forever.

Kyle Kashuv Doesn’t Go to Harvard University

Kyle Kashuv, like many teens at 16, engaged in a conversation with his friends in a Google Doc where he typed racist words in order to get a rise out of his friends. This sort of exchange is meant to see who can one-up the next friend by using shock value as the currency, and is probably far more common in teens than most people think. Usually, though, this sort of behavior is done in-person, face-to-face, or through online gaming or texting platforms. (Many people, for instance, wrongly believe that if you say something in an online voice chat while gaming, it will never come back to you personally. They are often surprised to find out how untrue that is.)

When you leave an electronic trail of such conversations, it’s bound to come back to haunt you. In this case, after Harvard University became aware of the conversation, they withdrew Kashuv’s acceptance into Harvard.

It’s weird to have to emphasize this, but it’s never okay to make racist comments. Period. Full stop. Whether you’re a teen or an adult, drunk, high, or sober, in private or public, such comments reflect views that demonstrate not only an extreme immaturity and ignorance on your part, but also an angry streak of hatred toward those not like you or who aren’t a part of your particular social, class, gender, or race group.

Everything is Forever, Especially Online

It’s better we all learn this hard lesson as soon as possible. Everything you write, share, send, photo, or say online or through an app or while gaming can be recorded forever. Without your knowledge or consent, and then used against you in the future.

Even apps that promise they “destroy” your message or photo seconds or minutes after it’s sent can’t protect someone taking a screenshot or photo of the screen that has the message or photo displayed. There is no technology available today in 2019 that can stop me from taking a photo of my phone’s screen. I have now easily defeated any app’s promise that things will disappear forever. They won’t. Don’t fall for the marketing.

It’s far worse when you send things through regular texting, email, or like Kashuv did, through a Google Doc. Google Docs are especially wonderful since they track every single edit made to the document, and who made it. The receiver or sharer of the information can hold onto it forever, even if they’ve claimed they’ve deleted it. They can also go ahead and share it with whoever they’d like, make copies, post it anywhere online, etc. It’s truly a privacy nightmare, if you weren’t looking for any of that kind of sharing outside of your group to happen.

“But I’m anonymous online, right?!” Sure, sure… Believe that if you’d like. But the technology to tie a username to an actual, real-life identity not only exists, but is used every day by companies and universities. If you think you’re anonymous just because you use a unique username no one could possibly ever guess or know, think again.

Why This is Directed at Teens

I feel like teens, more than most adults, are especially unaware of the dangers of forgetting about their privacy or taking it for granted. They take for granted and often feel like their friend today will be their friend two or three years from now. They don’t always appreciate or understand how others can perhaps innocently share something with someone outside their friend group, and before you know it, it’s being passed along indiscriminately online. Once the genie is out of the bottle, there is no way to put it back in.

You may think, “What does anyone care what I ranted about on Reddit back when I was 13, spewing hatred and racist remarks?”

As Kashuv has learned, others may indeed care. If not a future university, then a future employer. If not a future employer, then perhaps a future romantic partner. If not a future romantic partner, then perhaps a family member.

You have to be on guard about this stuff, because nobody will protect you from it. Nobody knows exactly what it is you’re doing online, not your friends, not your parents, and not your teachers. Only you know. So it’s up to you to be vigilant at all times about the things you’re saying and doing in an app or online. Ask yourself, “Would I want my mom or dad to read or see this? Or a future employer? Or a university admissions office?”

If the answer is, “No,” then perhaps it’s best to not share it.


For further information

Vox: The Kyle Kashuv-Harvard controversy, explained

Protecting Kids Online Privacy

Teens & Privacy: Everything Online or in an App Can Last Forever

John M. Grohol, Psy.D.

Dr. John Grohol is the founder of Psych Central. He is a psychologist, author, researcher, and expert in mental health online, and has been writing about online behavior, mental health and psychology issues since 1995. Dr. Grohol has a Master's degree and doctorate in clinical psychology from Nova Southeastern University. Dr. Grohol sits on the editorial board of the journal Computers in Human Behavior and is a founding board member of the Society for Participatory Medicine. You can learn more about Dr. John Grohol here.

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APA Reference
Grohol, J. (2019). Teens & Privacy: Everything Online or in an App Can Last Forever. Psych Central. Retrieved on October 24, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 24 Jun 2019 (Originally: 25 Jun 2019)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 24 Jun 2019
Published on Psych All rights reserved.