New Canadian research shows youth are thinking critically about the impacts of artificial intelligence

April 6, 2021

OTTAWA – A new Canadian report from MediaSmarts, Canada’s not-for-profit centre for digital literacy, calls for more algorithmic literacy tools and resources which will give youth the knowledge they need to protect themselves and their information online.

Algorithmic Awareness: Conversations with Young Canadians about Artificial Intelligence and Privacy, funded by the Office of the Privacy Commissioner of Canada, created a space for young people to learn more about AI and algorithms, and their repercussions on privacy rights.

MediaSmarts conducted focus groups with youth ages 13 to 17 to gain insight into how young Canadians understand the relationships between artificial intelligence (AI), algorithms, privacy, and data protection. Participants played a game prototype, designed by MediaSmarts’ education team, to help build awareness and meaningful understandings of data collection and sharing practices. Conversations highlighted that while youth understand and appreciate the benefits of recommendation algorithms, they are troubled by algorithmic data collection and data sharing practices.    

“We found young people disliked the idea that their online information was being ‘lumped’ into categories of aggregate data to train algorithms and machine learning without their knowledge and, more importantly, without their consent.” said Dr. Kara Brisson-Boivin, Director of Research at MediaSmarts.

The research reinforces the importance of ongoing conversations with young people across Canada about privacy online. Platforms, educators, and policymakers all have roles to play in acknowledging and responding to what young people have to say about algorithms and online privacy.

Key findings include:

  • Young people are aware of the impacts of algorithms in their online environments, specifically that algorithmic pre-selection pushes them towards more passive uses of the internet, and are often frustrated by a sense of powerlessness to change this algorithmic architecture.
  • Our conversations with young people highlighted how they don’t like being ‘duped,’ ‘scammed,’ or ‘manipulated’ by online platforms or content creators.
  • While most participants had few reservations about the use of personal information by algorithms recommending relevant entertainment and leisure content, they were concerned about ‘creepy’ and ‘invasive’ corporate surveillance strategies.
  • Youth were clear that selling their data without their knowledge and meaningful consent was as one participant explained a ‘violation of their privacy’.
  • Youth questioned the fairness of algorithmic assumption based on data about race, gender, sexual orientation, or health status and were concerned for people who are already placed at risk of experiencing racism, marginalization, or discrimination. Young Canadians want developers and platforms to be more aware of the consequences of relying too heavily on this technology.

Key recommendations of the report include:

  • Awareness: New algorithmic literacy curricula tailored to the unique needs of children and youth to encourage critical thinking skills, raise awareness about their privacy rights, and empower young Canadians to take control over their personal information.
  • Transparency: Enhancing algorithmic transparency through clear and accessible data collection and privacy policies.
  • Protection: Online businesses and policymakers consider data erasure policies.
  • Control: Ongoing and more meaningful online consent processes including solutions identified by youth in previous MediaSmarts research such as unbundling options, line-by-line consent, and just-in-time notices.
  • Engagement: Future research projects that continue to build our knowledge of algorithmic literacy levels and engage with children and youth in a way that positions them as experts.

“This research is important because insufficient knowledge of AI and algorithms contributes to exclusion from online spaces, tech-facilitated discrimination, exposure to harmful content, and various privacy risks.” said Samantha McAleese, Research and Evaluation Associate at MediaSmarts.

For more information, view the report, key findings and recommendations, and research blog.

Dr. Kara Brisson-Boivin, Samantha McAleese, and Marc Ladouceur are available for media interviews to discuss the report and its findings.

To schedule an interview, please contact, Nina Lewis, Manager of Marketing and Communications: nlewis@mediasmarts.ca

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MediaSmarts is a Canadian not-for-profit centre for digital and media literacy. Its vision is that young people have the critical thinking skills to engage with media as active and informed digital citizens. www.mediasmarts.ca