Young Canadians Speak Out: A Qualitative Research Report on Privacy and Consent

Informed Youth Promote Clarity for All

It’s something we’ve all done before: scrolled past a wall of text to click “I Agree” with no idea what we’ve agreed to. Then, when we’re using the platform, messages like “We’ve made some changes to our Terms and Conditions” simply remind us that we probably didn’t read them in the first place. Our world is becoming more and more influenced by the data that’s being collected about us. For young people in particular, this can lead to serious and unexpected consequences that could affect their entire lives.

As part of MediaSmarts’ research project, Young Canadians Speak Out: A Qualitative Research Report on Privacy and Consent, we held focus groups with youth ages 13 to 16 to learn about their views on online privacy. What we found was that young people want a much clearer understanding of the terms of service and privacy policies they are agreeing to. They also want to understand how the data economy works, and how the platforms they use could affect their future.  

Beyond that, the youth to whom we spoke felt it wasn’t enough just to be informed on how these legal documents worked. They wanted platforms to take certain steps to make the information clear and simple.  They wanted the platforms to verify that users genuinely understand what they’re agreeing to, to allow users who change their mind to revisit their decisions, and to give them more control over what is and isn’t being collected.

“Like most of us, young people don’t have a true understanding of what happens with their personal data when they click ‘Accept’,” said Samantha McAleese, research associate at MediaSmarts and co-author of the report. “Youth aren’t currently able to give meaningful consent thanks to these complicated privacy policies, which is a real problem that needs to be addressed by online platforms, as well as educators and policy-makers.”

Youth are aware of this, and while in some cases they appreciate being shown ads that are relevant to their interests, there is a fine line for them between legitimate data collection and uses that are “weird” or “creepy.” This includes being virtually followed through GPS or receiving friend recommendations based on where they have been.

The heart of this research project was to give youth a chance to design consent processes in a way that made sense to them. The “paper prototypes” they created expressed in a concrete way the best practices they had identified, such as being able to change a “Yes” to a “No” at any given time if they were no longer comfortable with a feature. Their prototypes also included features for easily accessing their application settings and swiping a button to revoke consent.

Nearly all the participants’ prototypes included more options than a single “I Accept” button at the end of a long document. For young people, meaningful consent means not just giving a blanket “Yes” or “No” but being able to pick and choose what they are comfortable with on an ongoing basis. The participants did recognize that they would need to consent to certain required settings, such as giving access to their camera in order to use a photo sharing app. They accepted that these should be mandatory, but felt that other permissions should be optional. It was also important to them that the choices be presented in a clear, modular layout so that they could make informed decisions about what they were accepting.

Finally, youth participants felt they were often pressured to accept terms and conditions because they had already invested time into downloading and installing an application. They suggested having the terms presented before downloading the application and adding reading ‘checkpoints’ that the readers would have to acknowledge before continuing to scroll through the text.

This report should, finally, put an end to the misconception that young people don’t care about privacy. Indeed, they have a lot to say to us about privacy, data collection and meaningful consent – if we listen to them. Thanks to our participants’ suggestions, policymakers, regulators and platforms now have an opportunity to make data collection and consent clearer, simpler and fairer – not just for young Canadians, but for all of us.

This research was made possible by the financial contributions from the Office of the Privacy Commissioner of Canada’s contributions program.