Sex, Drugs, and Privacy Settings: How Online Privacy Relates to Youth Posting Risky Health Behaviors on Social Media




Senior Research Scientist and Lecturer at the Annenberg School for Communication

Project Summary

Researching and writing an honors thesis in Communication was the perfect culmination to my four years at Penn. When presented with the opportunity to take on a thesis, I wavered as I considered how immense a commitment it would be and what goals I had for my senior year. Ultimately, I decided that it would be a great loss if I did not take the chance to be a part of the knowledge creation and research that goes on at Penn.

Based on topics I had studied in Communication courses over the years, I narrowed down that I wished to study youth and the ways they use social media. Needless to say, that was way too broad of a topic. I remembered a compelling discussion in one of Dr. Joseph Turow’s classes about privacy policies for mobile apps and websites, and so I was inspired to investigate social media and online privacy for teens and young adults. I wanted to understand whether this age group felt they were safe and had control of privacy in their online networks. At the same time, I wondered how their feeling of safety and control squared with how frequently they were posting about risky health behaviors, like sex, drugs or drinking.

I took these questions to a former professor and Annenberg School for Communication researcher, Dr. Amy Bleakley. Her focus on youth, media and health was a great match for the project I set out to do. I learned countless things from the year-long thesis process and developed a great connection to a faculty advisor in my field of study. I am proud that I contributed knowledge about how teens and young adults perceive the level of privacy in online networks and how frequently they and their friends post risky health behaviors. With the help of Dr. Bleakley, I navigated the IRB approval and special waiver processes. I designed, advertised for, and analyzed the results of a survey of about 300 young people. I grappled with time-management and adaptability so that I could complete such a huge project by deadline and respond well to setbacks that I encountered along the way. Despite frustration cropping up from to time, it was the desire to answer my questions and also see the project through that kept me going. The thesis was a hugely rewarding capstone to my undergraduate career at Penn.