Hidden Social Media Account

Teen wants to reconcile his private social media and his public persona…

conveys someone hiding behind the picture on their smartphone.
Hiding Identity Behind the Smartphone. Photo Credit: jatapp.com

Dear Ms. Smartphone: Is it OK to have one or two burner sites for social media? A hidden social media account. I am in high school now and hope to get into a good college in two or three years. So, my parents have been on my case to keep my social media posts squeaky clean. To me, it comes across like a branding campaign. Meanwhile, my friends and I have a couple of platforms where we are truly authentic with each other. Should I ‘fess up to my parents, delete info from these private sites or do something else? Jon, Brentwood 

Dear Jon: This is a thoroughly modern problem. But it has intrinsically old roots. We are in personal conflict when our personal state-of-affairs contradicts core values and ethical traditions. It sounds like that hidden social media content would make your parents squirm.

There are good reasons for your parents to suggest that you keep a social media account that polishes your reputation . When you apply to colleges, or look for a job, it is almost a given that your online presence will be scanned for details. It’s better to have a social media feed about the honor societies you joined, the track medals you earned, and the quiet, reflective artwork you create…than a feed about the tats and speeding tickets you acquired over the same time frame.

But Not Alone

That said, perhaps you feel the need to exercise freedom of speech or indulge in secret interests? I couldn’t find the equivalent data for North America, but in Asian-Pacific countries, about 28% of users have an anonymous social profile or a profile without their real name, photo, or socially identifiable information (ie, Southeast Asia= 35%, India= 28%, Australia= 20%)  Never trust poll data at face value, but the numbers do fortell that lots of people, like you, keep an anonymous virtual profile.

As a parent, I worry that a digital sleuth might connect your different profiles- perhaps through metadata like an IP address, your contacts, location data, or time of posting. Or worse, a careless friend might take a screenshot, or send a message, or tag you and that will link to your anonymous sites. Even if you use Snapchat, you will not be immune. Posts there are scheduled to disappear in a day but actually stay on their servers until all your recipients open them for up to thirty days. 

Seeking Union

As you get older, I hope that you, and others, will be able to connect both the online presence that your parents see with the anonymous one you share with friends. These different versions can merge and become a singular online presence. I don’t believe it’s healthy for anyone to post things that they are not accountable for or express things that violate an ethical code.

On the other hand, I realize that kids are path-breakers when it comes to digital media, and are already rewriting social media in ways that their parents, teachers, and elders cannot imagine. And, they are also quicker and more informed about how to manage digital keys, edit posts, and delete accounts.

Does Screen Size Matter?

Is it the small screen or a small attention span when it comes to a digital meeting?!

A hand holds up a phone and on their phone is a Zoom meeting with four pictures of people. There is also a yellow coffee cup in the picture.
Does the Screen Size Matter for the Meeting?
photo credit: Angela Lang, CNET

Dear Ms. Smartphone: My colleague and I were on a conference call together, but she took the meeting from home on her computer, while I joined in from my home, and over my phone. When it was over and we compared notes, she had lots of observations and remembered interesting points that were relevant for our company. I could barely recall any. Was it me, or was it that I used my phone to connect and screen size does matter? Neal, San Francisco

Dear Neal: Your question is reminiscent of that old Marshall McLuhan expression that “the medium is the message.”  At one time everyone used desktop computers for meetings, but now they have moved on to smaller screens and laptops. Is it the screen size that makes a difference or what McLuhan called hot and cold media? We will never know as McLuhan died before the invention of smartphones.

Chances are if you took the call on your phone, you were also wearing headphones and walking around. Mobile phones are by definition ‘mobile,’ but when we move about, we rely on our operating faculties, many of them at a sub-conscious level, to stay upright and not trip over things. We are not aware of our divided attention, since it takes place at an automatic level. As this column often notes, mobility and smartphones don’t play well together in cars or on foot. So, the mobility factor might explain why the conference call had more depth for your colleague. 


Another factor could be that you missed detail on the smaller screen of the phone. Imagine that you streamed the play Hamilton to your phone. Yes, you would see if Aaron Burr was on center stage and perhaps get his lyrics, but you probably would not be able to register Thomas Jefferson and the mob moving about in the background.  When you use a small screen to conference, you might hear the speakers, but miss the sidelines.

Some confirmation comes from a recent University of Michigan/Texas A&M study. The researchers found that participants reading news on their phone screens were “less attentive and activated” by what they saw. Now, that may not be what happened in your online meeting, but you get the drift.

Big Conventions Too!

There are also conventions built into how we use the phone, as well as how we interact with the computer. When we use phones,  it’s not unusual to scroll and open a new screen when we are interrupted by the ping of an incoming text message. Workers between ages 25 and 34 spend 6.4 hours a day checking their email, and you might have been distracted out of sheer habit.

Finally, I can’t leave the topic without suggesting that you and your colleague  might have begun the meeting with different frames of mind. She may have begun with high expectations, and that led her use the laptop, and perhaps (we don’t know) take notes on a piece of paper or alt screen. You may have approached the conference with other priorities, and that led you to pre-select the phone. We like to think that the medium (the technology) is making the choices for us, but that’s not always the full picture, pun intended. 

Stay in Touch Not by Phone


A cartoon (originally from Shutterstock) of two older people getting a message on their phone.
Staying in touch with parents?

Dear Ms Smartphone: How to stay in touch outside of phones? My kids are in their thirties, mostly grown up and have good careers.  At least once a day one of them sends a group text from their smartphone with a picture or a joke. The pictures are typically of a great meal, pretty scenery, or funny pets. Sometimes there are jokes.  I enjoy the texts and our group exchange. It’s a nice way of dropping into their adult, daily lives. But, since they do not live very far, I suggest on numerous occasions that we get together and set up a regular family visit. There is extreme resistance and I am continually told that they have busy schedules.  For me, this smartphone communication is not enough. Mimi, Boston

Dear Mimi: Your question is really “Why has this smartphone become our primary means of interaction?” Families that live far apart or are stationed overseas have to depend on voice and, more recently, video calls to stay in touch. But, when we live closer together, why is the phone substituting for meeting in-person with each other?

To some extent this is a generational issue.  Many younger people feel that the technology- smartphones- are a means of staying in touch with each other. If they change jobs or move to a new community they can maintain a “persistent relationship” with the people they left behind. They may perceive that the “persistent relationship” also applies to their immediate family circle. 

Locked DOwn?

Although DearSmartphone, by definition,  puts devices at the center of relationships, it is necessary to ask, in an old-fashioned way, if your kids have other issues that keep them apart. I am not a therapist, but this one (link here) asks all the right questions about hidden resentments, hurt feelings, and neediness. If you follow the therapist’s advice, you will probably be having those difficult discussions….over your phone!

Keep in mind that smartphones with cameras and text are new- most families probably didn’t have them ten years ago- so it is hard to know how they change our personal lives and interpersonal dynamics. Much has been written about the risk for human communications: the lack of emotional, face-to-face conversations; the ability to be bored; the accelerating quest for new stimulation.  In face to face conversations, we have eye contact, we react to the tones of another person’s voice, and we sense their body movements. We lose that on our devices, even with Zoom or Facetime.

Perhaps using our phones to replace human interaction has happened faster than we ever thought……

Look Forward

Do your best to make a case for visiting with each other:  explain that you miss the spontaneous interactions, the sense of touch and smell, being able to share physical things (a book, a meal, a gift) or ask for their hands-on help with software. If your children were teens or pre-teens, you, as a good parent, would be actively regulating their digital lives and how much time they spent online. As the parent of adult children, it’s more difficult, but you have the advantage of having grown up with a time BC (before cell phones) and experiencing wholesome family-time across generations. Press on, for over an extended period, excluding real-life contact and non-verbal cues will harm your relationships even further.