Privacy Ethics

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 or taking a screenshot of a photo that someone sent us, for example, or posting a link to someone’s video or even “Liking” someone’s post (which may make it visible to other contacts or make the site’s recommendation algorithm spread it more widely). 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. Tagging people also identifies where they were 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.[i] Sharing things online isn’t something only young people do: the term “sharenting” has been coined to describe some parents’ habit of posting photos of their children without their consent[ii]– something almost half of teens say bothers them.[iii]

Because digital media are shareable and persistent, on social media sharing isn’t a choice but a default. Rather than “weighing the risk of participating…[youth] employ strategies to mitigate those risks.”[iv] For example, when posting photos online with their friends or family in them, youth usually asked themselves “which one should I share?” instead of “should I share it?”[v]

One of the most common reasons why youth share online is a desire for attention from friends and peers: youth say that they post photos online to “look social.” The goal attributed to posting any photo to their social media account was to create a “public marker of social connection and display of sociality.”[vi] Social expectations can also influence decisions on sharing. Not many teens choose to opt out of the “sexual banter, gossip, discussion” that happens online. 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.[vii] MediaSmarts’ research found that boys and girls are roughly equally likely to send sexts, though boys are more likely to forward them and to receive forwarded sexts.[viii]

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.

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. [ix] 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 either re-posting or morphing photos into nude or suggestive images to post in public forums.[x] Perpetrators in abusive relationships may also use the threat of releasing personal material to coerce or blackmail their partners, or if they’re in an unhealthy relationship they can be blackmailed to keep sending more photos.[xi] When these photos are shared, it is a ripple affect causing them to be shared and shared again potentially leading to cyberbullying from their peers.[xii]

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.[xiii]



[i] Steeves, V. (2014). Young Canadians in a Wired World, Phase III: Life Online. Ottawa: MediaSmarts, p. 15.

[ii] Beauchere, J. (2019) Teens say parents share too much about them online – A Microsoft Study. Microsoft. Retrieved from

[iii] Ibid.

[iv] Johnson, M, Steeves, V, Regan, L & Foran, G. (2017). To Share or Not to Share: How Teens Make Privacy Decisions about Photos on Social Media. Ottawa: MediaSmarts.

[v] Ibid.

[vi] Johnson, M, Steeves, V, Regan, L & Foran, G. (2017). To Share or Not to Share: How Teens Make Privacy Decisions about Photos on Social Media. Ottawa: MediaSmarts.

[vii] Ringrose, J et al. (2013). A Qualitative Study of Children, Young People and ‘Sexting’.

[viii] Johnson, M., Mishna, F., Okumu, M., Daciuk, J. Non-Consensual Sharing of Sexts: Behaviours and Attitudes of Canadian Youth. Ottawa: MediaSmarts, 2018

[ix] Bright, R., & Dyck, M. (2011). It Hurt Big Time: Understanding the Impact of Rural Adolescents’ Experiences with Cyberbullying. Northwest Journal of Teacher Education, 9(2), 9.

[x] Kirkey, S (2018). Do you know where your child’s image is? Pedophiles sharing photos from parents’ social media accounts. The National Post. Retrieved from

[xi] Fyfe, W (2020). Lockdown ‘sexting’ blackmail concerns for young people sharing images. BBC News. Retrieved from

[xii] Ibid.

[xiii] Marwick, A, Boyd, D. (2011). Social Privacy in Networked Publics: Teens’ Attitudes, Practices, and Strategies. A Decade in Internet Time: Symposium on the Dynamics of the Internet and Society. Retrieved from