The Privacy Dilemma: Balancing Privacy and Online Life

M&M's flip the MixIt's been widely said that attention is the currency of the 21st Century. In an age where media occupy an increasingly central role in our lives, the need to have that media focused on you becomes intense. For no-one is this more true than for children and teens, who now expect to be connected twenty-four hours a day and for whom the Internet and cell phones are essential parts of their social lives. An interesting Facebook page, amusing Tweets, outrageous YouTube videos, even shocking photos sent by cell phone -- most of us are aware of the ways that young people seek their peers' attention. In today's media environment, is it still possible to teach young people the value of privacy? What, indeed, does the idea of privacy even mean to today's children and teens?

With support from the Office of the Privacy Commissioner of Canada, Media Awareness Network has completed a thorough review and updating of its popular professional development resource Kids for Sale: Online Privacy and Marketing to better reflect today's media environment. While fears of online predators have turned out to be largely overblown, parents and educators need to be aware that there is a powerful and organized force that is trying, and succeeding, to compromise children's privacy: online marketers.

Few adults are aware of just how commercialized kids' online environments are. According to MNet's study Young Canadians in a Wired World, ninety-five percent of young Internet users' favourite sites contain commercial content. In many cases these sites blend advertising and entertainment in ways that would be unimaginable in other media. Embedded with images of logos and mascots, these sites use video, downloadable content and free games to build up exposure to branded material and inspire consumer loyalty. Knowing that kids' Internet time is largely unsupervised, they take advantage of children's inability to discern advertising from non-commercial content. MNet's research shows that two-thirds of children surveyed who played advergames -- online games which contain branded content and serve as advertising for youth-marketed products -- did not recognize them as advertising.

The privacy concerns of these online environments arise from the data collection techniques that are used. These are found not just in overtly commercial sites such as Candystand but also popular children's sites such as Neopets. In nearly all sites aimed at youth, children must register to gain access to the full content -- giving up personal information they would certainly not tell a stranger offline. Moreover, many of these sites give incentives (such as the "Neopoints" needed to purchase items on Neopets) for completing surveys on such topics as one's favourite candy, breakfast cereal and so on. The result, for the sites' owners, is a wealth of valuable consumer data that can be used to shape marketing decisions, in the case of the overtly commercial sites, or sold to marketers for the same purpose by the others.

What should concern parents and educators is not that the information being collected by these sites is especially sensitive -- no-one can identify or track you by your preference for Hershey over Cadbury chocolate bars -- but that these information-gathering techniques train children to give up personal information without thinking about it. If they are accustomed to trading their privacy for what they want as children -- access to games and other online content or "Neopoints" to customize their online houses -- then they will likely do the same to buy the attention of their peers as teens. Of course, this can lead to unwelcome attention as well -- either at the time, in the form of embarrassment or humiliation when material meant to be private goes public, or later, when material is viewed by unexpected audiences such as employers or university admissions officers.

So does the term "privacy" even mean anything for today's youth? In fact it still does -- ask any teen if she'd want her mother as a Facebook friend and you'll learn that. What's changed is that we can no longer view privacy as an absolute: instead it has become a negotiation, in which information is traded in exchange for other things.

What parents and educators need to do is teach children and teens privacy management, the skill of making conscious and wise choices about what information to give out and why. Kids for Sale: Online Privacy and Marketing, part of MNet's Web Awareness WorkshopSeries, gives educators a detailed rundown of the privacy concerns facing youth today and provides strategies and resources for dealing with them. The Office of the Privacy Commissioner has also sponsored a two-part lesson series, available for free download from both the MNet and OPC Web sites, that teaches students in Grades 7 to 12 how to balance maintaining their privacy with leading an active online life.


Kids for Sale: Online Privacy and Marketing, part of MNet's Web Awareness WorkshopSeries, explores current strategies for marketing to kids and the ways in which children's privacy may be compromised online. The workshop underlines how important it is for kids to know when they are being informed, entertained or marketed to online and also to understand how their personal information may be used. To see if your school, board or ministry has already licensed the Web Awareness WorkshopSeries, view our list of current licensees.

Privacy and Internet Life, a lesson for Grades 7 to 8 which teaches students how to protect their personal information on social networking sites such as Facebook, and The Privacy Dilemma, a lesson for Grades 9 to 12 which asks students to consider and discuss the trade-offs we all make on a daily basis between maintaining our privacy and gaining access to information services.

MNet's Media Issues page on Information Privacy contains background information on the ways information privacy is compromised online, Canadian and American privacy legislation, voluntary privacy codes in industry and how online marketers target children.

The Office of the Privacy Commissioner recently launched a youth-oriented Web site titled myprivacy.mychoice.mylife which includes information on building a secure online identity, tips on protecting your privacy online and a blog on privacy issues.

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