When it comes to posting photos on social media, teens are anything but spontaneous, new study shows

Ottawa (April 19, 2017) – A new study released today by the not-for-profit organization MediaSmarts and researchers from The eQuality Project shows how teens carefully compose, select, and edit the photos they share on social media to build and maintain a consciously crafted image. The report To Share or Not to Share: How teens make privacy decisions about photos on social media reveals how teens decide what photos to share online and the pressure they feel to always post images that show them in the best possible light – while not standing out from the crowd.

The teens interviewed almost exclusively use Instagram and Snapchat for sharing photos, and what makes a “good photo” depends on what is acceptable and desirable on each platform: Instagram photos are expected to appear “professional” while Snapchat photos are just as carefully composed to look fun and spontaneous.

The study suggests that the ways young people are required to manage their privacy online have restricted the potential of photo-sharing sites to support free expression. Instead, these platforms have become homogenous spaces where it is important to ‘look social’ without actually revealing too much of oneself. One way this plays out is in a reluctance to even show your face in photos: in fact, “selfies” actually made up fewer than one in ten of the photos the teens shared, and every participant talked about how easily a photo of your face can be judged or misconstrued. 

“The teens we interviewed were working hard, using multiple accounts, to create very carefully constructed versions of themselves for their friends and the outside world”, says Jane Tallim, Co-Executive Director of MediaSmarts. “At the same time, they were constrained by narrow social norms that discourage them being outside the mainstream, which was surprising as we tend to think of photo-sharing sites as venues for free expression and creativity” Tallim added. 

Some of the unwritten rules the teens followed when making decisions about privacy and publicity on photo-sharing platforms include:

  • Posting only “safe” photos that steer away from controversial topics like politics, religion, sexuality, and race;
  • Not taking a screenshot of someone’s Snapchat photo;
  • Not connecting with strangers online (although they had a very narrow definition of what a “stranger” was);
  • “Looking good” in every photo, but being careful not to present themselves in a sexualized context.

The teens who participated in the study also displayed little understanding that the platforms they use are businesses or how using them makes those corporations money. In almost every case, the teens had not read or understood the platforms’ privacy policies and terms of service. On the other hand, the teens had a strong sense that their photos are their property, and felt that corporations should seek their consent to use them, in the same way they expect their peers to.

The findings point to the need to educate youth about their rights and responsibilities as digital citizens and the ways in which they participate in the information economy.

The To Share or Not to Share: How teens make privacy decisions about photos on social media report is based on the findings of interviews conducted in 2016 with teenagers between the ages of 13 and 16. The research is a partnership between MediaSmarts and the eQuality Project, and was made possible by financial contributions from the Office of the Privacy Commissioner of Canada.


About MediaSmarts

MediaSmarts is a Canadian not-for-profit centre for digital and media literacy. Its vision is that young people have the critical thinking skills to engage with media as active and informed digital citizens. MediaSmarts offers hundreds of digital and media literacy resources for teachers, parents and educators on its website, mediasmarts.ca. @mediasmarts

About the eQuality Project

The eQuality Project – www.equalityproject.ca – is a partnership of academics, community groups, educators and policymakers that maps the ways in which e-marketing analytics sort youth into categories that often reproduce real-world patterns of discrimination and set up young people for online conflict. EQ uses our research findings to create educational and outreach materials that will help young Canadians push back against online harassment, racism, homophobia and misogyny, and make the most of their digital media experiences. 

Alex Hosselet, Marketing and Communications Manager, MediaSmarts
613-224-7721, ext. 231,