Ethics and Sharing Personal Information

One of the biggest ethical decisions young people have to make is how to handle other people’s personal information. Because nearly all of the services and platforms youth use online are networked, every time a friend or contact posts something they have to decide whether and how to share it. As well, youth may inadvertently share others’ personal information when posting their own content.

There are four main ways in which other people’s personal material can be shared online. The first is when we post a photo or video that we took which has other people in it – with or without their knowledge or consent. The second is when we share material that someone else has posted – forwarding a photo that someone sent us, for example, or posting a link to someone’s video or even “Liking” someone’s Facebook post (which makes it visible to your Facebook friends as well as theirs). In both of those cases we may also “tag” photos, pictures or posts with a person’s name, which makes it visible to that person’s friends and will make it appear when someone does a search for their name. Finally, naming other people in location check-ins – either using apps like Foursquare or the location tracking tools now common in many blogs and social networks – also shares personal information about them, in this case where they are at a particular time.

There’s no question that youth are aware of how easily their private information can be spread to unintended audiences, and many spend considerable time online managing who sees what about them. Around half of all students have either deleted something that they posted about themselves or asked someone to delete something that the other person posted about them [1].

Sharing things online isn’t something only young people do: a 2012 study found that almost as many adult Internet users shared photos or videos they had found online as posted their own [2]. What is different is that for the most part, for young people, sharing isn’t a choice but a default: rather than asking why youth share others’ personal material, we might more usefully ask why they don’t [3]. For example, one of the most popular strategies youth use for managing how others share their personal information is de-tagging, removing their names from other people’s photos – something which by definition can only happen after someone else has posted them [4].

One of the most common reasons why youth share online is a desire for attention from friends and peers: youth who say that wanting to be popular is important to them are more likely to share information about themselves [5].

Social expectations can also influence decisions on sharing. Not many teens choose to opt out of the “sexual banter, gossip, discussion” that happens online, and this pressure may lead girls to send sexts (nude, semi-nude or sexy photos). While this pressure can push youth to sext, it can also push them to share those they receive with their peers in order to win social approval – or to avoid the social risks that can come from refusing to do so [6]. (MediaSmarts’ research found that boys and girls are roughly equally likely to send sexts, though boys are more likely to forward them, to receive forwarded sexts and to have their own sexts forwarded by others [7].)

Similarly, just as youth (and adults) may choose to share personal material to get attention from a single person, they may share someone else’s material for the same reason. Even if the material is being shared with a larger audience, the motivation may be mostly to get a reaction for one person – as when personal photos, videos or other material are shared after a relationship breaks up.

Finally, young people may choose to share personal material with someone else as a sign of trust. While people rarely share other people’s personal material for this reason, it’s significant because one of the most common types of personal information shared for this purpose – passwords [8] – makes it possible to access and share almost anything else. (One quarter of students in the 2014 YCWW study report sharing passwords with best friends, while 16 percent of students in grades 7-11 would share passwords with boyfriends or girlfriends [9].)

Having so much access to their peers’ personal information puts young people in a position of constantly having to make ethical decisions about what to share and what not to share. Unfortunately, youth often ignore the ethical dimensions of this choice, expecting others to tell them if they don’t want something to be shared. At the same time, youth actively disapprove of what they refer to as oversharing, by which they mean sharing things with people outside of the intended audience.

Probably most common is what we might call unintentional oversharing, in which material is shared inadvertently or the person who shared it didn’t think of the possible consequences. This form of oversharing is best addressed by teaching kids simple rules and procedures to follow before posting or sharing anything, to remind them to think of how this might affect others.

More significant is when personal material is shared intentionally. This may happen for a number of reasons, from starting “drama” to getting laughs at a friend’s expense, but the common thread is a disregard for the person’s feelings and the effect that sharing it may have on them.

This lack of consideration and respect can often cross the line into bullying and abuse. Many cyberbullying incidents occur when friendships or romantic relationships break down, which can often lead to one or both parties using personal material to get at the other [10]. Once private material is made public to even a limited audience, it can spread worldwide: a whole industry of “parasite” websites benefits from this by trawling for and re-posting nude or suggestive images posted in public forums [11]. As well, perpetrators in abusive relationships may use the threat of releasing personal material to coerce or blackmail their partners [12].

Oversharing can result from confusion about boundaries as well. Parents often want to be a part of their children’s online lives, while young people – especially teens – prefer to maintain a boundary between themselves and their parents. As a result, teens are most likely to consider something as “oversharing” when it results in their parents seeing it [13].


[1] Steeves, V. (2014). Young Canadians in a Wired World, Phase III: Life Online. Ottawa: MediaSmarts, p. 15. <>
[2] Photos and videos as social currency online Pew September 13, 2012. <>
[3] Alice Marwick and dana boyd. Social Privacy in Networked Publics: Teens’ Attitudes, Practices, and Strategies. “A Decade in Internet Time: Symposium on the Dynamics of the Internet and Society.” September 22, 2011. <>
[4] Privacy management on social media sites Pew February 24, 2012. <>
[5] Emily Christofides, Amy Muise, Serge Desmarais. Privacy and Disclosure on Facebook: Youth and Adults’ Information Disclosure and Perceptions of Privacy Risks. Office of the Privacy Commissioner, March 26, 2010. <>
[6] Jessica Ringrose, Rosalind Gill, Sonia Livingstone, Laura Harvey. A Qualitative Study of Children, Young People and ‘Sexting’. May 2013. <>
[7] Steeves, V. (2014). Young Canadians in a Wired World, Phase III: Sexuality and Romantic Relationships in the Digital Age. Ottawa: MediaSmarts, p.5. <>
[8] Matt Richtel. Young, in Love and Sharing Everything, Including a Password. The New York Times, January 18, 2012. <>
[9] Steeves, V. (2014).
Young Canadians in a Wired World, Phase III: Life Online. Ottawa: MediaSmarts, p. 28. <>
[10] It Hurt Big Time: Understanding the Impact of Rural Adolescents’ Experiences with Cyberbullying
[11] Porn sites steal young people’s suggestive pictures October 22, 2012 CBC News. <>
[12] “Cyberbullying can start with a miscue study says”. eSchool News, June 20, 2011. <>
[13] Alice Marwick and dana boyd. Social Privacy in Networked Publics: Teens’ Attitudes, Practices, and Strategies. “A Decade in Internet Time: Symposium on the Dynamics of the Internet and Society.” September 22, 2011. <>

Resources for Youth

Stay on the Path

Stay on the Path: Teaching Kids to be Safe and Ethical Online is a series of resources that aims to promote and encourage ethical online behaviours with young people. The resources include a four-lesson unit on search skills and critical thinking; a self-directed tutorial that examines the moral dilemmas that kids face in their online activities and strategies for helping youth deal with them; and three tip sheets for parents on how to teach kids to be safe and ethical online.

Learn More