Constant surveillance: Youth privacy in a digital age

Despite what many adults believe privacy matters to youth. More and more, though, youth are finding that their actions online are monitored – by parents, teachers, and corporations. A high school principal creates a fake Facebook profile page and adds over 300 of her school’s students as friends; a Texas middle-school plans to introduce ID cards with microchips that its students will be required to carry at all times; an Indiana high school student is expelled after a profane tweet (sent in the middle of the night from the student’s home computer) alerts his school’s monitoring system. While these are extreme examples, they show some of the ways that young people find their privacy compromised – often by the very same people who are urging them to be more conscious of their privacy.

As MediaSmarts’ study Young Canadians in a Wired World, Phase III: Talking to Youth and Parents about Life Online has shown, youth receive inconsistent messages about privacy. On the one hand, youth are often told that they need to value and protect their privacy. Parents and teachers tell students to be aware of the information they post online, whether on their social networking pages or when entering contests or filling out registration forms. This personal information can be collected and sold to advertising companies and marketers for use in targeted advertising or corporate strategies, or can result in unwanted contact from strangers or lead to social embarrassment. On the other hand, kids are told that their privacy needs to be compromised for their own protection: parents feel pressured to monitor their children because they’ve heard about the (exaggerated) dangers of Internet predators, while  schools monitor online activity to attempt to prevent access to inappropriate content or because they’re worried about cyber-bullying.

In addition to these confusing messages about privacy, surveillance online is simply a reality for youth today. While youth feel that the surveillance they’re subject to is annoying (and often useless), they have received the same mistaken messages about stranger danger and Internet risks and as a result have bought into the idea that they must be monitored to keep them safe online. This surveillance – and young people's acquiescence to it – is cause for concern. Privacy is a fundamental human right, and constant surveillance chips away at our private space. If youth grow up in an environment where surveillance is normal, they are less likely to resist future – and possibly more intrusive – developments in surveillance. If youth learn, early on, that having their activities tracked and their behaviours monitored by a multitude of sources is normal, then they might not resist as more and more parts of their life come under the gaze of others. Moreover, this constant surveillance robs kids of the chance to take risks, to experiment and to make mistakes – to grow, in other words, into independent adults.

Surveillance can also drive kids underground: many youth report that they often subvert, resist, or negotiate surveillance in a variety of ways. For instance, youth use slang, code words or "in-group" references to send one message to peers and another to parents, move to social networks that permit greater degrees of anonymity or pseudonymity, and seek out alternative service providers if they’re uncomfortable with the amount of information a website wants to collect – or, if they can’t find an alternative, limit or falsify the information they post.

Students aren’t the only ones who criticize school surveillance: many teachers do as well. When school filters block sites such as YouTube or web pages that contain certain key words, it’s frustrating for students and teachers alike. Of course, there are pressures on schools too. Schools and teachers need to balance their responsibilities to keep students safe and to provide a space for growth and development, both academically and socially. Too often, though, safety means surveillance. Instead of blocking entire sites, students should have the opportunity to browse, learn, and develop in a supportive environment where they have access to the opportunities that the Internet can provide, but also feel comfortable turning to an adult if there’s a potentially dangerous situation. Rather than shutting down the computer – and the conversation – mistakes of this kind should be teachable moments, as they were for the teacher in our study whose students stumbled on a "cloaked" hate site without recognizing it. 

Despite the numerous strategies that youth have devised to get around surveillance and maintain their own privacy, there are still a number of areas where kids can benefit from adult guidance. For example, while youth are very concerned about their social privacy, they’re often not nearly as aware of how the corporate online spaces where they spend their time gather and profit from their personal information, and the means available for protecting their privacy in that context. It’s also easy for kids – especially teens – to forget how permanent something posted on the Internet can be. Once it’s up, it’s out of our control: even if we delete that nasty comment or embarrassing photo, we can’t be sure that others haven’t already seen it, or even saved it and distributed it further. Teaching kids about privacy ethics and digital citizenship can help develop an understanding of how to act ethically online and avoid embarrassing or harming themselves and others with their online actions.

It’s important that youth have the agency to control their personal information. By providing them with access to their own personal space, instead of monitoring them online (even if it’s usually done with the best of intentions), we’re giving them the space to experiment and develop ideas and identities. Youth then have the chance to grow, develop, learn how to be autonomous, and cultivate mutually trusting relationships with their parents, teachers, and peers.

MediaSmarts has updated the Privacy section of our website, highlighting developments in privacy issues and surveillance online, as well as some of the legislation that deals with these issues.