Digital age comes with privacy concerns

The looming threat of digital footprint, online presence, and security concerns are those which we will always face as long as people communicate over the internet. But there’s no doubt that Gen Z and its successor Gen Alpha, said to be the generations of the digital age, are experiencing this doubly – with the desperation to stay connected that ensued during the pandemic, many teens had taken up posting and messaging on social medias like TikTok and Instagram, throwing their fears out there for the world to see and connect with.

If you exist in American society (and even if you don’t necessarily yet – maternity apps have been proven to track what pregnant women purchase online, gaining information already on happenings inside of individual bodies – especially scary in wake of the Roe v. Wade turnover), it’s likely that you’ve amassed some form of digital clutter. This is what’s known as your “footprint”, a trail of data tracking all of your online interactions. And although corporations aren’t known for encouraging authenticity, except when there are attention spans to be captured and money is on the table, many teens today use social media to express themselves and connect with those who are similar-minded. Now, though, colleges and employers are free to scrutinize what we put out in the digital field – but what exactly is it that they can access? And how worried should we be?

While there are no laws against a university simply looking an applicant up online, this can raise significant moral concerns. When choosing one student to attend over the other, it may just come down to protecting an institution’s interests – if any one post or comment is vulnerable to misconstruation, it very well may end up that way – and that seems to be the case for everything we put out there nowadays. It may sound like an excuse, but it’s true – that institution or employer just wasn’t there. They don’t have the context behind your post, a look into the inner workings of your mind, a grasp of the complex dynamics of your friend group that synthesized an inside joke which inspired that post. It feels unfair, that it could be the single thing standing in front of you and your dream school or job.

While this scenario may seem overly-dramatic to some, this kind of thinking is something that, whether we are aware of it or not, governs all of our behavior online. It is this that often causes us to stir up mass panic and, as a result, unnecessarily censor ourselves. This self-censorship of sorts happens in journalism and major media publications who are afraid of drumming up something greater than what they asked for, but has been popping up more and more in the age of the Internet. 

The term ‘self-censorship’ implies it is an action of the ‘self’, but it is most often induced by outside pressure – and those agents could very well be your own friends, family, or social media circle. According to a study done by Washington University in St. Louis, around 40% of Americans would rather keep their opinions to themselves than, say, face public scrutiny. Of course, we all practice some sort of filtering of the self in our everyday lives, taught as the dichotomy between ‘thinking it’ and ‘saying it’ by many an elementary school guidance counselor – what to do with thoughts that may or may not be appropriate in a social situation. This usually comes naturally as an ‘unspoken rule’ in many cultures, including our own. When this idea begins to bleed into and limit genuine discussion for societal progress, though, it becomes a problem, no matter the reason.

While employers and admissions offices can often judge with an iron fist, it is clear that public anxiety surrounding this has only risen to new heights and left us with unintended consequences. Then, what can we do to ensure we have our best foot forward without completely silencing ourselves? There are so many existing services, charging hundreds of dollars on the claim they can clear negative connotations to your name out there – but our online connections do not exist in a vacuum, and so entirely untangling ourselves from such a complex web will prove fruitless. Things like privacy settings on accounts and monitoring search results tied to your name can be a good start, but not an adequate cover-up for serious problems surrounding free speech under the surface.