How Do Canadian Teens Make Decisions When Sharing Photos?

Matthew Johnson

Building on MediaSmarts’ findings on youth and privacy from our Young Canadians in a Wired World research, our new qualitative study, To Share or Not to Share: How Teens Make Privacy Decisions about Photos on Social Media examines the reasoning that teens apply when sharing photos online.

Knowing how young people understand their information rights is key to digital literacy education. Because the regulatory model that protects young people’s online privacy assumes that they will choose not to post anything that they want kept private, privacy education initiatives typically focus on telling young people not to post personal information online. However, our Young Canadians in a Wired World research suggests that young people do not define privacy as non-disclosure, but instead seek to negotiate an appropriate level of privacy from peers and family members through a set of social norms that govern who sees what. Given this difference, we undertook this study to learn more about how teens perceive and approach privacy online so we can develop digital literacy programs that reflect their perceptions and are responsive to their needs.

For this research we interviewed 18 Canadian youth between the ages 13 and 16 to find out if and how their decisions to post photos are rooted in a desire to manage their reputation, and whether or not they actively consent to the collection and use of their personal information by the corporations that own the photo-sharing platforms that they use. We also mapped their knowledge about data protection principles and asked about any experiences they’d had interacting with corporations to exercise their rights under existing fair information practices, such as being able to access and delete personal information.

Performing for the audience

Everybody says that social media is connect with friends and whatnot, and to a certain extent, sure. But, when everybody goes on it, I feel like they’re always thinking the same thing: gotta look good. (Margaret, female, 15)

The most common motivation the teens gave for sharing photos online was to build and maintain a consciously crafted image. They often spoke of being aware that the audiences they reached through different apps would judge them, and of the need to choose and, in some cases, edit their photos to fit into what was acceptable and desirable on each platform: “People will judge you... Eight hundred people would see that ugly photo of you and they would probably judge you.” (Nico, male, 13)

The teens we interviewed almost exclusively use Instagram and Snapchat for sharing photos, and what makes a “good photo” depends in part on the app they use: for example, photos on Instagram are expected to look “professional” and also fit into a consistent “theme” or “look” for the account, which might be based on a particular topic or colour palette. While photos on Snapchat are expected to look fun and spontaneous, they are still carefully crafted to create that effect. 

You want to post to impress people, and with Instagram, you don’t even think about your own self, you can’t just think, oh, what will people think, will they like this photo? You kind of stop thinking about your own needs. (Pavlina, female, 14)

Contrary to the popular conception of “selfies” as being the standard social media photo, these actually made up fewer than one in ten of the photos that were shared: “I feel like there’s just something weird and embarrassing about like going to your room to take some selfies.” (Margaret, female, 15) Instead, these teens are most likely to share photos of things like landscapes, consumer goods, and sunsets than those that had people in them. This preference for “safe” photos also leads many of them to carefully avoid any possibly controversial topics: “Politics, religion, sexuality, race – those are the things that I won’t do on social media.” (Suyin, female, 15)

Controlling audiences

As opposed to simply ‘not posting’, most of these teens’ efforts are aimed at controlling who sees particular photos and preventing them from being spread to unintended audiences. The main tool that they use to ensure that only desired audiences see particular photos is selecting which platform and account to post them on. Snapchat’s ability to notify users if a screenshot of their photo is taken was mentioned by several of the teens as one of the most valuable features of the platform, but this is prized less as a technical tool than as an implicit social signal that a photo should not be spread beyond the initial audience: “It’s considered rude to take a screenshot of somebody’s Snapchat… because you sent them that picture like for however many seconds and they’re not really respecting that.” (Courtney, female, 16)

Participants in our Young Canadians in a Wired World survey mostly expected that their friends would ask before posting a photo of them, particularly one that is bad or embarrassing. While the teens in this study mostly agreed that the people in a photo had a right to decide whether or not that photo was shared, they are more likely to think about how their friends would feel before posting, as opposed to directly asking them for permission. Similarly, while the top strategy reported in Young Canadians for dealing with an unwanted photo was to ask the poster to take it down, participants in this study mostly prefer to rely on indirect signals, hints and nudges to ask that photos be deleted: one participant, for example, sent a copy of the offending picture with herself edited out to the person who had shared it.

Little awareness of consumer rights or the commercial environment

The teens we interviewed do not generally think of the platforms they use as businesses, or understand how using them makes those corporations money, a finding that’s in line with the Young Canadians participants’ generally poor understanding of corporations’ interest in their personal information. While these teens have a variety of strategies for managing their online identities in the eyes of their imagined audiences, when it comes to corporate access to their data they have only two: hoping that the sheer number of photos will provide them with privacy by obscurity and rationalizing that they have not posted anything “that would come back to haunt them.”

“I highly doubt they’d pick a random girl from Ottawa’s pictures to like stare at ‘cause I don’t think that’s something that’ll happen. I hope not.” (Amira, female, 16)

In almost every case, the teens had not read or understood the platforms’ privacy policies and terms of service and did not feel that reading these would provide them with any useful information or help them understand their rights or possible remedies when dealing with the corporations that own the platforms. Most said this was because these documents were too long and difficult to read – not surprising considering that only a third of the participants in Young Canadians had ever had anyone explain a privacy policy to them. The teens in this study also had little or no awareness of their legal rights as consumers under PIPEDA or of the fair information principles that corporations are required to abide by when handling personal information. However, they expressed strong opinions when asked about the idea of platforms looking at their photos or using photos for purposes that they hadn’t agreed to.

I really do not know [why corporations keep photos] ‘cause what could they do with your picture? Why do they have it? What could they do with it? It doesn’t make sense to have it if they don’t even know you… I don’t really want them to have my picture. I mean what would they do with it? It’s actually scary. (Kaya, female, 14)

As far as these teens are concerned, the platforms have not asked them for consent to use their photos or personal information, nor do they feel they’ve given it by agreeing with a platform’s terms and conditions. Instead, they imagine giving consent to corporations in the same way as they do for their peers: one photo at a time, and with an implicit understanding of their intentions:

I don’t even think that they should have access to the photo. They made the social media and everything, but having access to people’s photos is just too much. Especially if it’s a private account, they obviously made it private so random people don’t see, and then Instagram is doing exactly what the owner of the account didn’t want. (Pavlina, female, 14)

As this exploratory research confirms, taking and sending photos is something the teens we interviewed do every day. Despite its routine quality, though, they put a significant amount of thought and effort into making sure that different audiences see them as they want to be seen.

Though they have little awareness of the ways that the corporate owners of their favourite platforms make use of their photos and other data, these teens have a strong sense that their photos are – or ought to be – their property, and that those corporations should seek their consent in the same way they expect of their peers. These findings help to show us the way forward in educating youth about the ways in which they participate in the information economy, and about their rights as digital citizens:

  • Digital literacy education. Privacy education that focuses on technical tools, such as platforms’ privacy settings, are unlikely to be successful as these teens did not make significant use of them. Given their interest in controlling audiences, it would be more effective to educate youth about the ability of these tools to limit who can see individual posts or photos rather than broadly keeping content “private.”
    The participants’ reliance on social norms and signals to manage their privacy also shows how important it is that privacy ethics be a part of digital literacy education. Youth need to be made aware of the ethical dimensions of sharing others’ photos and encouraged to confront both the “empathy traps” of digital communication and the “moral blind spots” by which some peers may be seen to have given up their right to control what happens to their images.
  • Digital citizenship education. Young people need to be made aware of their rights as digital citizens and encouraged to participate in civic activities online and to take an active role in forming the cultures and values of their online communities. Digital literacy and online safety programs must also be careful to avoid using scare tactics or reflecting attitudes that exaggerate the risks of speaking out online. 
  • Consumer awareness education. The most serious gap identified in the participants’ knowledge is in this area. It is impossible to even begin consumer education until students know that they are participating in an economic transaction, and understand at least the basic aspects of the deal they have agreed to. Helping youth to understand how the platforms that they use make money off of their participation is essential to making them informed consumers who can give genuine consent to the use of their personal information.