Privacy and Bullying

Matthew Johnson

Despite their enthusiastic participation in social media, it’s a mistake to think that young people don’t care about privacy. MediaSmarts’ 2014 study Young Canadians in a Wired World, which surveyed over 5,000 students across Canada on their experiences with and attitudes towards digital media, found that they do have very strong feelings about their privacy, and take significant steps to control it. What is true is that youth generally think about privacy differently than adults: not so much in terms of deciding what to share but in terms of controlling who sees what. Nor are they primarily concerned with hiding online content from parents: in fact, after strangers, students were most likely to say that they had blocked their friends from seeing content on their social networks. With this in mind, it’s easy to see how privacy and cyberbullying overlap, because the effort that youth put into making sure some of their friends but not others see particular content is an indicator of just how much damage can be done by getting that content in front of the wrong people.

Two of the more common forms of cyberbullying reported in our survey relate to privacy: sharing rumours and sharing and embarrassing photo or video. Spreading rumours has, of course, been a feature of bullying since time immemorial, and is only somewhat exacerbated by digital communication (indeed, as some of our focus group participants pointed out, the fact that digital media leave a virtual “paper trail” can actually make it easier to respond to rumours in an online context.) But the replicability and potentially worldwide reach of networked media mean that an embarrassing photo or video can do a great deal more harm than in analog days.  Not surprisingly, youth have developed robust social norms around the idea of consenting to sharing content, particularly photos: more than half of students expect their friends to ask before posting a good photo of them online, and almost nine in ten expect their friends to ask before posting a bad or embarrassing photo. Youth similarly rely on social sanctions after unwanted photos are posted, preferring to ask the poster to remove the photo over any other response.

While it’s encouraging to see that youth are developing cultural norms that include a respect for privacy, the limitation of these social strategies is that they are subject to broader social and cultural attitudes – which often include pressure to minimize invasions of privacy or treat them as “just a joke.” “I was just joking around” was the top reason our survey participants gave for being mean or cruel to someone online, and a significant majority felt that what adults perceive as bullying is often just joking around – a perception that was actually more common among students who had been targets of bullying.

The most extreme example of this is sexting. While both sending and sharing sexts are considerably less common activities than media coverage might suggest – our survey found that just eight per cent of students in grades 7 to 11 who had access to a cell phone had sent a sext, and that three-quarters of those who had received sexts had never forwarded them – there’s no question that sharing a sext with unintended audiences can have tragic effects. Unlike other embarrassing photos or videos, the one-quarter of students who had forwarded sexts did not seem to feel there was a need to get the subject’s consent, or indeed that there was a moral dimension to sharing them: while students were less likely to have engaged in other forms of mean or cruel online behaviour if there was a rule in the home about treating people with respect, the presence of this rule had no effect on whether or not they forwarded sexts.

While there is good reason to be optimistic about young Canadians’ attitudes towards privacy, therefore, it’s also clear that more needs to be done. We need to build on students’ preference for dealing with these issues through social norms by letting them know that sharing sexts is not a mainstream activity and that youth who send sexts – or any potentially embarrassing content – do not give up the right to consent, or to refuse to consent, to having

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