Facebook announced today that it’s changing its policy to allow teens to post publicly. Prior to today, Facebook members aged 13 through 17 were only allowed to post to a limited audience that maxed out with friends of friends.
In a blog post, Facebook said that teens will also “be able to turn on Follow so that their public posts can be seen in people’s News Feeds” As is the case now, followers can only see posts that they’ve been authorized to see. When a teen selects “public” as the audience for a post, Facebook will remind the teen that the post can be seen by anyone.
There will be some who will no doubt question Facebook’s wisdom and motives for allowing teens to share publicly. But I for one am all for it. My reason is simple. Teens deserve the same free speech rights as adults and many teens want to be able to speak out on issues that are important to them.
Free speech and youth activism
One need only look at the work of Malala Yousafzai, the 16 year-old Pakistani girl who was shot in the head for speaking in favor of the rights of women and girls. She was able to speak directly on this subject, to blog about it, to be interviewed and to make media appearances but – based on the rules that were in place until today, she wouldn’t have been allowed to post about it on Facebook.
Although the First Amendment applies to government, not the private sector, there is nothing in it that says that freedom of speech is only a right for people over a specific age.
The United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (which is law for most countries served by Facebook) is even more explicit. “The child shall have the right to freedom of expression; this right shall include freedom to seek, receive and impart information and ideas of all kinds, regardless of frontiers, either orally, in writing or in print, in the form of art, or through any other media of the child’s choice.”
“Any other media” clearly includes social media such as Facebook and any arbitrary rules preventing teens from expressing themselves or accessing information expressed by others certainly violates the spirit that convention.
But forget rights for a moment and just focus on dignity. We are trying to teach our children to be good citizens and that includes speaking out on issues that concern them. Whether it’s the treatment of women and girls, the environment, the economy, issues of war and peace or even their thoughts on sports teams or their favorite foods, young people not only have a right to express themselves but, by doing so, they are helping our democracy by engaging in dialog about issues.
The notion that teens shouldn’t be allowed to share publicly is actually something that we’ve mostly been talking about in the age of social media. When I was a kid, my parents were happy when the local paper wrote a story about how I had done something laudable. My own son Will Magid, now a professional musician, performed publicly when he was in high school. Based on the old rules, he couldn’t have used Facebook to post his recordings or videos of his performances to share with the same people who might have been in the auditorium when he performed. Of course there are things teens shouldn’t post publicly on Facebook just as there are things they shouldn’t say to strangers on the street. The good news — based on recent surveys — is that most teens know this.
As a private company Facebook doesn’t have to give teens the right to speak in public but as a forum that has more members than the population of any country besides China and India, it has a moral obligation to allow unfettered speech to all of its members.
Right to privacy and free speech
Having said that, Facebook also has a responsibility to protect the privacy of teens and everyone else, which is why it’s important that teens be made aware that they have control over who sees each of their posts. By default new teen accounts will default to friends only (it used to be friends of friends) but now they can expand or narrow that audience. Both teens and adults need to be aware that if you post publicly, subsequent posts will also be public until you again change the audience. I wish there was the option to have the audience settings automatically revert back to the user’s preferred default so that if you usually post privately and decide to post publicly, the next time it would revert back to private.
Parents, privacy advocates, teachers and anyone else who interacts with teens should do all they can to make sure that young people understand how to use Facebook’s privacy tools and remember that there are consequences to what you post – in some cases even if it’s only shared among your friends
But there are also consequences to keeping people – of any age – from being able to express themselves and I for one am glad that Facebook has finally unshackled its teenage users.
Disclosure: Larry Magid is co-director of ConnectSafely.org, a non-profit Internet safety organization that receives financial support from Facebook