Online Privacy, Online Publicity: Youth do more to protect their reputation than their information

Matthew Johnson

Do young people care about privacy? Participants in MediaSmarts’ 2012 focus groups told us that they valued their privacy highly, despite being enthusiastic participants in platforms and activities that adults see as being about nothing but sharing and broadcasting. Looking at the findings from our Young Canadians in a Wired World survey of more than five thousand students from every province and territory in Canada, we can begin to understand that contradiction: young people may not care that much about what we think of as privacy, but they care very much about control – control over who can see what they post, over who can track them digitally and, most especially, over how other people see them.

One thing that can safely be said about young people’s online experience is that it is social. But socializing is not necessarily the same thing as sharing. Many students say that they take active steps to manage their online image, such as deleting something they had posted themselves and asking someone else to delete something about them. While we often think of youth hiding their online activities from parents or other authority figures, in fact they’re as likely to want to hide their own content from their friends as from their families, and far fewer have hidden content from teachers and current or potential employers.

This careful curation of what they publish might be why youth are generally willing to give their friends and family access to their social networks. For younger students, social networks are largely about family: 80 percent of Grade 4 students say their families should be able to see what they post on social media, while just 60 percent said the same about their friends. As they get older, however, the balance shifts: family members remain an important audience, though, with just over half of Grade 11 students saying their parents should be able to see what they post.

Nine out of ten students have used the privacy settings on their social networks, but while half of students have used them to block strangers the next-most-often blocked group is friends. This suggests that students are not only using privacy settings to block other users entirely, but also making individual items only visible to some of their contacts.

Just what is the online content to which youth want to control access? One area of particular concern to youth is photographs: almost all students said they would do something to get rid of a picture of them that they didn’t like. Students generally favour social approaches to doing this. The two most popular strategies for dealing with an unwanted photo are to ask the person who posted it to take it down, followed by untagging the photo. Telling parents and reporting it to the social network provider are the next most popular responses, followed by telling a teacher or principal, breaking off the friendship and going into the person’s account and taking it down. While the same top strategies are most popular for both girls and boys, they’re more popular among girls than boys, while boys are more likely than girls to choose one of the less popular strategies. This suggests that girls are setting the social norms for how to deal with privacy and identity issues online. As well as expecting that friends would take down a photo if asked, students also expect their friends to ask them before posting a photo, whether it’s a bad or a good one. Given that the most popular ways of dealing with an unwanted photo rely on social negotiation, this shows the importance of promoting positive social norms about respect for others’ privacy.

Other technical means of managing privacy, such as passwords, have a social dimension as well. A password is the key to all of a person’s personal content and data, but a majority of students nevertheless say they would share the password to their social networking account, email account or cell phone. While boys and girls are equally likely to share their passwords with a girlfriend or boyfriend, girls are much more likely to share passwords with a best friend and boys are more likely to say they would never share their password with anyone. This may be because sharing passwords is considered a sign of trust among girls but not boys; it may also be because boys are more worried about being victims of identity spoofing or “pranking”.

Girls are also more likely to share passwords with their parents than boys. However, students in general feel that parents should be allowed to read what they post on their social networking pages: not surprisingly it is the youngest students who feel this most strongly, but even in Grade 11 just over half still want to be visible to parents and family members. Girls are generally more willing to share their social media content with their parents than boys, though. Given that girls are also more likely to use privacy settings to block strangers from seeing their posts, this may be related to the greater number of household rules for girls and the greater perception among girls that the Internet is unsafe as reported in our first report from the student survey Life Online.

Parents are also the main source of privacy education for students. This may explain the focus of students’ education on controlling access to content (such as posts and photos) rather than data (such as the record of sites they've visited and posts they've liked), and the poor awareness of the data collection practices of the programs and platforms they use. Four-fifths of students have learned how to use privacy settings (which are used to control who sees what you publish) while only a third have had someone explain a site’s privacy policy (which lists the personal information the site collects, how they use it and to whom they disclose it). Perhaps as a result of this, two-thirds of students mistakenly believe that a site with a privacy policy will not share users’ personal information with others.

The concerns raised by parents in our 2012 focus groups, which were almost exclusively focused on their children’s safety, may also be reflected in some of the students’ other habits and attitudes: almost three-quarters of students, for instance, never post contact information such as their home or email address online. Life Online showed that many youth share their parents’ view of the Internet as a dangerous place, which may explain why almost a third said that the police should be able to see what they post on social media and track their location.

Canadian youth do care about privacy, and are willing to learn and use tools for managing it. Their poor understanding of data privacy, however, leaves them vulnerable to privacy invasions that they may not even be aware of. Because parents are the main source of students’ privacy education, we need to raise public awareness of privacy issues and to broaden the conversation beyond safety concerns. Teachers need more resources and support to teach students about privacy management skills and all of us need to promote positive social norms – at school, at home and in our culture – towards valuing our own personal information and treating other people’s with respect.

Future reports based on the Young Canadians in a Wired World student survey data will look at students’ habits, activities and attitudes towards: online harassment and bullying, offensive content, online relationships and digital literacy in the classroom and in the home.

Click here to read the full Online Privacy, Online Publicity report.

Young Canadians in a Wired World, Phase III: Online Privacy, Online Publicity was made possible by financial contributions from Canadian Internet Registration Authority, Office of the Privacy Commissioner of Canada and The Alberta Teachers’ Association.