Teaching Privacy Ethics

With younger children, the best approach is to have a clear and consistent set of rules, both at home and at school, about sharing other people’s content.

These can range from the strictly practical – such as, “Always ask someone before you post or share a picture or video of them, or tag them in a picture or video” – to those that encourage kids to develop empathy, such as “Before posting or sharing something, think about how you would feel if someone posted a picture or video like that with you in it.” While rules are important, don’t put too much emphasis on what will happen if they’re broken. Instead, stress that these are the rules and social codes that everyone in our society follows, whether that society is a home or a school. MediaSmarts’ research has shown that students who have a rule in the home about treating people online with respect are significantly less likely to engage in mean or cruel behaviour such as posting or sharing embarrassing photos or videos.[i]

At this age, it’s also helpful to use the technological tools that are available to help limit the fallout of bad decisions. Check the sharing settings for any social networks or virtual worlds your children use to make sure that they are set at the highest privacy levels and turn off location check-ins for any service or device they use.

In the tween and teen years, romantic relationships begin and friendships become the most intense, both of which can lead to bad choices about sharing personal material. It’s vital that tweens and teens be taught about healthy relationships and how to recognize when a relationship is not healthy – and how that relates to sharing private material. While explicit rules are still useful for tweens and teens, they’re much more sensitive to their peer group’s social codes. We can encourage youth to move to a moral view where decisions about sharing are made on the basis of rights, such as the right to privacy.

As we’ve seen, much of the unwanted sharing that happens is either fully or partly unintentional. Youth often don’t realize the possible consequences of sharing something or simply fail to think about the other person at all. That may be especially true when youth post photos or videos they take themselves, without thinking of the other people who may be in the frame. Kids need to be encouraged to make a habit of thinking about anyone who might be in a photo or video before posting or sharing it, as well as the platform’s terms and conditions they are choosing to post it to.

We can also teach kids a variety of techniques to manage “hot” emotional states – not only those that are negative, but also positive emotions such as happiness or excitement – that may increase the likelihood of making bad decisions.[ii] For instance, youth can be taught to be more mindful of when they are in these emotional states, to use relaxation techniques to manage those states and to make a practice of not making any decisions that could affect others – such as sharing someone else’s personal material – until they’ve calmed down.

Youth also need to be aware of that their online and offline identities are not separate.[iii] Most teens do not have a clear idea of the image of them communicated by their online identities and see the “posts, chats, photos and videos” they share as “only ‘rarely or sometimes’ … manifestations of their real identity.”[iv] While young people should be free to experiment with their identities online, they also need to be aware both of the image they are communicating and of the impact their online identities may have on them. As Kurt Vonnegut put it, “We are who we pretend to be, so we should be careful who we pretend to be.”[v]

Rules and laws can be valuable in helping youth make good choices about sharing, especially with younger kids, but they have significant limits. One 2018 American study found that educating teens about sexting including the fact that sending or forwarding sexts was against the law – and might result in very serious, possibly lifelong consequences – did not have a large effect on whether they continued to do so because they felt that “consensual sexting is becoming a more common practice within youth.”[vi] While this doesn’t mean that knowing the consequences has no desired effect on every youth participating in sharing or creating sexts, it does suggest that the legal risks, while severe, still seem too remote to be seen as significant in comparison to the social pressure to do so from their peers or significant other.

Social norms are also teens’ preferred approach for dealing with privacy issues. A good example is the social networking app Snapchat, which became notorious because its key feature – the fact that the pictures can be set to “self-destruct” after a certain amount of time – was seen as encouraging sexting. However, research suggests that Snapchat is not used for sexting any more often than other apps and social networks that are popular among teens.[vii] Instead, the purpose of using it seems to be to send a social signal that saving the photo would be rude. Moreover, while teens are well aware of the various ways in which an image sent by Snapchat can be captured, they rely on social norms to prevent this: as one participant in MediaSmarts’ research put it, “It’s considered rude to take a screenshot of somebody’s Snapchat... because you sent them that picture like for however many seconds and they’re not really respecting that.”[viii]

This attitude was echoed by participants in MediaSmarts’ Young Canadians in a Wireless World (YCWW) focus groups, who generally expected their peers to let them know if their personal material was going to be shared and preferred solutions based on social norms, such as asking to have posts taken down or de-tagged or not tagging friends in unflattering photos when their private material was shared. [ix] In the national YCWW survey, around half (45 percent) of all students report having asked someone else to delete something they had posted about them.[x]

As we’ve seen, though, social norms can also lead to bad choices about sharing – especially in the most serious cases, such as sexting. That’s why it’s essential that we discuss moral dilemmas related to this to encourage kids to develop a personal morality that will guide them to make good decisions. Remember, it’s important that a moral dilemma not have a clear right answer, so that it gives youth practice in moral reasoning.

Parents and trusted adults also need to be good role models when it comes to ethical decisions about their children’s privacy. While some “YouTube families” have been viral successes – in some cases earning parents thousands of dollars at the expense of their children’s privacy[xi] – we need to ask ourselves what kinds of attitudes towards other people’s privacy we are modeling when we post videos, photos or other personal material relating to our children and their personal life or details.

Moral dilemmas about sharing

Imagine that Jennifer took a photo in which she feels she looks particularly good, but in which her sister Maria’s hair is standing up in an embarrassing way. She knows that Maria will be upset if she shares the picture and will say no if Jennifer asks if it’s okay, but because they had their arms over each other’s shoulders, there’s no way to crop Maria out of the picture. Questions we might consider are whether it matters that Jennifer took the photo herself, rather than someone sending it to her, and if it makes a difference if Jennifer shares it only with people who don’t know Maria.

Younger children can be asked to think about whether posting the photo would hurt her friendship with Maria and whether her other friends might come to feel they can’t trust her with their personal material. We can ask older children whether Jennifer’s right to control her property is more important than Maria’s right to dignity, and whether Jennifer should apply the “golden rule” to “do to others as you would have them do to you.”


[i] Steeves, V. (2014). Young Canadians in a Wired World, Phase III: Cyberbullying: Dealing With Online Meanness, Cruelty and Threats. Ottawa: MediaSmarts. http://mediasmarts.ca/ycww/cyberbullying-dealing-online-meanness-cruelty-threats

[ii] Wang, Y et al. (2011). “I regretted the minute I pressed share” A Qualitative Study of Regrets on Facebook. Seventh Symposium on Usable Privacy and Security. Retrieved from https://cups.cs.cmu.edu/soups/2011/proceedings/a10_Wang.pdf

[iii] Oostman, K (2016). User experiences regret while engaging with Social Media. University of New Mexico. 7(1), 1-110.

[iv] Cimino, S et al (2017). Adolescents’ online and offline identity: A study on self-representation. The European Proceedings of Social and Behavioural Sciences. Retrieved from https://www.researchgate.net/publication/316740679_Adolescents%27_Online_And_Offline_Identity_A_Study_On_Self-Representation

[v] Vonnegut, K. (1966). Mother night. Dial Press Trade Paperbacks.

[vi] Ly A, et al. (2018). Prevalence of Multiple Forms of Sexting Behavior Among Youth: A Systematic Review and Meta-analysis. JAMA Pediatrics;172(4):327–335. 

[vii] Peeters, E et al. (2016) Sexting; adolescents’ perceptions of the applications used for, motives for, and consequences of sexting. Journal of Youth Studies. 1-25.

[viii] 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.

[ix] MediaSmarts (2012). Young Canadians in a Wired World, Phase III: Youth and Parent Focus Groups.

[x] Steeves, V. (2014). Young Canadians in a Wired World, Phase III: Life Online. Ottawa: MediaSmarts, p. 15. http://mediasmarts.ca/ycww/life-online

[xi] Dunphy, R (2017). The Dark Side of YouTube family vlogging. New York Magazine. Retrieved from https://nymag.com/intelligencer/2017/04/youtube-family-vloggings-dark-side.html