Techniques for literacy

There is a common misconception that youth are not concerned with privacy. On the contrary, though, there is significant evidence to suggest that privacy is a major concern among youth, particularly when it comes to their actions online. [1] As a result of this concern, young Canadians have developed a wide range of techniques to resist surveillance or negotiate their own privacy.

Many youth actively challenge website’s information collection practices when they register or sign up for services or web pages that require personal information. A common practice is to falsify or limit the information that is given in order to sign up. Limiting information is a practice whereby only the information that is necessary to access the service (generally noted by an asterisk) is provided, and any non-required information is simply left blank. Furthermore, many youth use pseudonyms or otherwise make up information when filling out information forms. [2]

Another strategy employed by young Canadians involves finding alternatives to sharing personal information. For example, when faced with a request for personal information, some users search for similar functionality or content from a site that does not require disclosing any information.                  

Among Internet users in general, and youth in particular, there is a distinct risk/reward approach to providing information. In other words, youth accept the disclosure of certain personal information when there is an identifiable benefit from their disclosure. Someone who wants to benefit from the positives of social networking, then, will provide certain personal information as a trade-off for gaining access to social networking sites. [3] This approach can be used in other, more specific situations as well. For example, users may adjust specific privacy settings or provide additional information once they have signed up, in order to gain access to other functions of the site. Conversely, if the benefits of providing this additional information are not apparent, then the user will choose not to provide additional information. Increasingly, privacy is something that is negotiated, in exchange for access to products, services, or special deals. [4]

The risk/reward approach is also seen in another common practice, password sharing. For young Canadians, there are two general contexts in which they share passwords with others. The first is often seen as a condition of using the sites; many parents require that their children provide them with passwords to social networking sites in exchange for allowing access. Secondly, password sharing is now the digital equivalent of sharing locker combinations among youth; having a peer’s Facebook or email password is an expression of trust and intimacy, whether between close friends or dating partners. [5] While password sharing increases the risk of being "pranked" or impersonated online, it also allows youth to develop mutually trusting relationships and learn how to act ethically in terms of privacy, while also serving as a way to demonstrate closeness with others.

Steganography is another common technique used by youth. [6] This relies on subtext and insider information to communicate hidden messages to friends and peers that may not be recognized by parents or teachers. This includes using slang, references to inside jokes, using codes, or using song lyrics or pop culture references. In the case of lyrics and references, they are often chosen so as to imply a message that is quite different than their literal meaning. Friends and peers that share similar cultural reference points, experiences, or interests are then able to glean the ‘true’ meaning of the post, while other readers come to a different understanding.       

One privacy concern with a number of social networking sites is the opt-out nature of privacy settings. [7] When individuals sign up for these sites, or when changes are made to privacy policies, the default setting on the website moves to the least private setting. If an individual does not want their information to be shared with the widest possible audience, they must navigate complex privacy settings in order to opt out of the defaults. For example, when Facebook introduced the “new” profile, new privacy settings were also released and set by default to the least private setting, leading to significant negative feedback from users. [8] Accordingly, privacy scholars such as danah boyd recommend that opt-in settings should be the default, so that individuals have to consciously choose to share their information, instead of the current standard of opt-out practices.

These strategies that youth have developed, along with the negative implications of constant monitoring and surveillance, mean that there are other, better ways to help ensure that youth are safe online. Some of the most effective learning comes through making mistakes. Instead of restricting access to certain sites or filtering content, communicate with youth and give them the freedom to explore. With open lines of communication and empowered and confident youth, mistakes, accidents and poor decisions can be used as teachable moments, helping youth learn how to act autonomously, evaluate the trustworthiness of others, and react appropriately to challenging situations.

While these strategies and techniques work at an individual level, there are also a number of strategies designed to protect privacy in place at the provincial, territorial, federal, and international levels. The next section outlines some of the major pieces of Canadian, American, and international privacy legislation.


[1] MediaSmarts, 2012; boyd, d. & Marwick, A. (2011). Social privacy in networked publics: Teens’ attitudes, practices, and strategies. Work-in-Progress paper for discussion at the Privacy Law Scholars Conference. Retrieved May 7, 2012 from; Bonneau, J. & Preibusch, S. (2009). The privacy jungle: On the market for data protection in social networks. WEIS 2009: The Eighth Workshop on the Economics of Information Security.
[2] MediaSmarts, 2012; boyd & Marwick, 2011.
[3] Bonneau & Preibusch, 2009.
[4] Haggerty, K.D., & Ericson, R.V. (2000). The surveillant assemblage. British Journal of Sociology, 51(4), 605-622.
[5] boyd, d. (2012). Teen password sharing: How parents normalized it. The Huffington Post. Retrieved 7 May 2012 from
[6] boyd, d. (2010). Social Steganography; Learning to Hide in Plain Sight. Accessed 7 May 2012 from
[7] boyd, d. (2010). Making Sense of Privacy and Publicity. SXSW. Austin, Texas, March 13, 2012. Retrieved 7 May 2012 from; Fuchs, 2012.
[8] Guevin, J. (2009). Facebook changes coming in response to user complaints. CNN. Retrieved 14 May 2012 from