TV, music and movies have been a central part of young people’s lives for generations, and the Internet has only intensified that by delivering all of those directly to our homes – legally and illegally. Because of how easy it is to access media content online, many adults worry that youth may be risking heavy fines and other legal penalties – as well as the possibility of downloading malware or being exposed to inappropriate content – if they illegally download media content from “rogue websites” that offer unapproved access to copyrighted content. MediaSmarts’ survey Young Canadians in a Wired World, Phase III provides us with an important new perspective on this issue, and suggests that Canadian youth are generally turning to legitimate media sources. However, while younger children in our study show a strong sense of ethical responsibility about this issue, the ways in which teens access copyrighted content may be more a matter of convenience than of conscience.
Downloading or streaming music and videos (whether TV, movies or original online content) are among the most popular activities for Canadian youth: in fact this was the number three activity overall (after playing online games and social networking) with more than half of the students in our sample doing it once a week or more. We did not ask students to distinguish between legal and illegal streaming or downloading, since participants in our youth focus groups had told us that they often had trouble knowing whether or not a particular source was legitimate. It seems likely, however, that the bulk of this was legitimate, based on our survey of students’ favourite websites, where several sites that sell or deliver legitimate content were highly popular:
- YouTube was the number one site overall, with 75 percent of students listing it as a favourite;
- iTunes was the 50th most popular site overall – 29th among girls in grades 7-11 and 39th among boys in the same age group; and
- Netflix was 27th among boys and 48th among girls in grades 4 to 6, and 14th among boys and 9th among girls in grades 7-11.
Sites run by content creators were also popular, with TVO Kids being 49th among boys and 38th among girls in grades 4-6, YTV being 23rd among boys and 27th among girls in grades 4-6 and Family being 43rd among boys and 5th among girls in grades 4-6 (as well as being 49th among girls in grades 7-11). By contrast, there were only two sites in either of the overall age-and-grade top-fifty lists that offered unapproved content, both of which offer streaming pornographic clips: RedTube (43rd among boys in grades 7-11) and PornHub (15th among boys in grades 7-11.) This suggests that for the most part, students are able to access the media they consume using legitimate sources, only turning to sites offering unapproved content when they would otherwise be blocked by age-gates or the lack of a credit card.
Is the preference for legitimate sites driven by ethical consideration, or simple convenience? That varies by age. Younger students generally feel an ethical responsibility when it comes to media, with three-quarters of Grade six students saying that it’s wrong to illegally download music, TV shows or movies. Among Grade 10 and Grade 11 students, however, only about a third of students feel the same way. Although students of all ages in our focus groups expressed confusion about what was legal and what was illegal online, interest in learning about this is similarly linked to age. Almost half of the overall sample was interested in learning more about what is legal and illegal to do online, but this dropped from over half in grades 4-6 to just over a third in Grade 11.
Overall, students were most likely to have learned about what is legal and illegal online from parents than other sources. Although boys and girls were equally likely to have learned about this, girls were significantly more likely to have learned from parents and teachers and boys were more likely to have learned on their own from online sources. Just over a third of students said they had a rule at home about downloading content. The presence of this rule had a modest relationship with whether and how often students downloaded or streamed content, suggesting that at least some illicit streaming or downloading is occurring. However, the likelihood of this rule being in a student’s home is much lower among older students – starting at a high of 50 percent in Grade 4 and declining to roughly 15 percent in Grade 11 – which may account for older students’ feeling that illegal downloading is not an ethical issue. Unlike younger children, who are motivated heavily by a fear of punishment and a desire for rewards, teens are more motivated by a desire to fit in. This makes them look to group values to guide their morality, and if their family is not providing any guidance they’ll be influenced chiefly by peers and popular media.
Another aspect of media use, which recently moved (in Canada, at least) from morally and legally grey to fully legitimate, is non-commercial user-generated content that incorporates copyrighted material. While products such as mashups and fan videos are the most widely known examples of this, only a quarter of students have ever posted a video made using clips or music created by someone else and just over a third have posted videos of themselves doing things such as singing or dancing (which often includes copyrighted material.) Significantly more – almost four in ten – have posted a story or artwork they created themselves, a finding reflected in the relatively high showing of sites Fanfiction.net, a site for sharing fan-fiction written about thousands of different TV shows, movies, comics, novels and cartoons (21st among girls in grades 7-11), and DeviantART (also 21st among girls in grades 7-11), an art-sharing site that features both original and fan art. (Interestingly, while girls are only slightly more likely to post stories or artwork online than boys, no sites for sharing stories or art appeared on any boys’ top 50 sites lists, suggesting that boys either share their content privately or do it on sites that are not specifically geared towards that purpose.)
The extent to which students know whether or not their user-generated content is legal is not clear; while most would be covered by the non-commercial user-generated content exception in the current Copyright Act, some features of these sites – such as the ability to sell prints of your work on DeviantART – may not be. As with issues around downloading and streaming, it’s important to provide a better education to students, parents and teachers about the ethical and legal considerations of accessing and using copyrighted material online.