Putting together the online privacy puzzle: a parent’s perspective

Andrea TomkinsWhen I was growing up, the issue of privacy was limited to eavesdropping on phone calls and making sure the key to my diary was well hidden. As a parent raising kids in a media age, the word has taken on a whole new meaning. I think that as a family of active netizens, it’s imperative that we - and our kids - understand the issues surrounding online privacy.

In the early days of the world wide web, I think privacy took a back seat to the novelty and splendor that the internet had to offer. Many of us were more than happy to exchange some personal information if we got something in return, but then SPAM happened. And viruses. And as our confidence started to wane most of us became more careful about where we plunked down our contact information.

I had always assumed that our kids - given that they don’t know what life was like before the wild wild west of the world wide web - would approach it more naively than we did. But apparently that’s not the case.

According to a new MediaSmarts report called Online Privacy, Online Publicity, young people value their privacy, this despite the fact they’re seen as using websites and publishing tools that adults think of being about nothing BUT  sharing and broadcasting.

There were a number of interesting findings (you can read the whole report here: Young Canadians in a Wired World, Phase III: Online Privacy, Online Publicity ) concerning important aspects of the privacy puzzle -  privacy policies, grasp of privacy settings, and sharing info across social networks - but there is one area that stands out for me because it’s something we talk a lot about at home: photography. Visual communication is such a big part of how we communicate online, isn’t it? YouTube, Facebook, Instagram, Vine… these are all visually driven platforms. What’s more, their successes weren’t clearly predicted by anyone. Those tools represent a major part of the way people share information today… and we know they’re sharing. Especially young people.

According to the MediaSmarts report, 95% of the grade 11 students who participated in the survey have Facebook accounts. Over half of girls in grades 7-11 also have Instagram (55%) and Twitter (53%) accounts. But how are they using those tools? Do we have a reason to worry?

Looking at the MediaSmarts findings, it seems that that young people are understanding their rights as it pertains to the sharing of photographs and it’s not exactly the crazy free-for-all that I’ve pictured in my head. Kids do actually use the “social and technical strategies” available to them in order to keep images that they want kept private out of the public eye.

We have own rules for posting photos online:

  1. Your reputation extends online, and it needs to be protected and curated. Don’t post a photo you wouldn’t want your parents/grandparents/principal/or future employer to see. (We try to drill into our kids that privacy doesn’t truly exist online and that anything that’s uploaded can be captured, copied, and shared.)
  2. It’s important to ask a friend their permission before posting a photo of them online. (In this vein, we regularly remind our kids that they wouldn’t want an unflattering photo of them floating around online.) 
  3. It’s totally ok to ask a friend to delete a photo of you.
  4. When in doubt about any of the above, ask a grown-up.

The MediaSmarts’ privacy report highlights some interesting findings in this area. Some of which you may find surprising too:

  • 89% of students say it’s wrong for a friend to post a bad/embarrassing picture of them
  • 54% agree that it’s wrong for a friend to post a good picture without asking first. For French speaking students in Quebec, nearly three quarters of students think this is wrong (72%).

In terms of content that kids have posted themselves:

  • Older students are more likely to delete content about themselves (77% have done so in Grade 11, compared to 77% who have never done this in Grade 4).
  • Their main concern is that parents (44%), family (42%) or friends (37%) will see.
  • Girls are more likely to delete things, suggesting they are more concerned than boys about their online image.

Ninety-seven percent of students would take steps to remove a photo they didn’t want others to see. Overall, younger students are more likely to turn to adults if they need help, and this is the primary response for students in grades 4–8.

Here’s an interesting tidbit. As students get older, they are generally more accepting of friends posting photos of them without asking permission. By Grade 11 just over one quarter of students expect their friends to ask them first. I would have thought this would be higher, don’t you? I’ve had to ask people to untag and remove photos of me from Facebook. It’s awkward at best, but given the world we live in now, we need to teach our kids how to stand up for their rights, online and offline.

In my next post I’d like to talk about another aspect of privacy we haven’t talked about enough at our own house... passwords. Bad passwords and password breaches can cause so much trouble. And there’s the issue of password sharing, which was also part of the MediaSmarts’ privacy report. In the meantime, I’d love to hear from parents about any password-related rules in their home. Do you have the passwords to your kids’ devices and accounts? Why or why not?  Leave your comments below.