Online Reputation and Youth: Helping a Vulnerable Population Secure Their Digital Future

Matthew Johnson (Director of Education, MediaSmarts)

August 2016

Note: This submission was contributed by the author(s) to the Office of the Privacy Commissioner of Canada’s Consultation on Online Reputation.

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this document are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect those of the Office of the Privacy Commissioner of Canada.


Children and teenagers have been identified as a group at particular risk of losing control of their online reputation. Despite their enthusiastic participation in social media, however, it’s a mistake to think that young people don’t care about privacy. MediaSmarts’ 2014 study Young Canadians in a Wired World — Phase III, which surveyed over 5,000 students across Canada on their experiences with and attitudes towards digital media, found that they do have very strong feelings about their privacy, and take significant steps to control it. This research has also informed the digital literacy and digital citizenship resources we have developed for young people, which are described in greater detail below.

One thing that can safely be said about young people’s online experience is that it is social. MediaSmarts’ research found that many of the top websites among students are either social networks such as Facebook and Twitter or contain features for sharing content. The success of Snapchat and similar apps that let young people selectively share photos and videos in a way that they are seen as not being “out there” forever, has shown that youth do make decisions based on privacy concerns. Many students in our study said that they take active steps to manage their online image, such as deleting something they had posted themselves (three-quarters of Grade 11 students had done this) and asking someone else to delete something about them (two-thirds of Grade 11 students had done this.)

There are two important things to know about how youth view privacy issues, particularly around reputation. The first is that they think of it in terms of controlling audiences, not by deciding what to share, but by controlling who sees what they share. Nor is this confined to hiding from parents or other authority figures: young Canadians are as careful in what they share with their friends and peers as with their families, and there is even some content which students don’t want to share with anyone: one in four students had deleted something they had posted in hopes that nobody would see it, with a further one in four asking someone else to delete something for the same reason. The second thing we need to understand is that while youth do use technical means such as social network privacy settings to manage their privacy, they generally prefer to do this through social means, such as by asking for photos of themselves that they don’t like to be removed. In fact, Canadian youth have developed robust social norms around sharing photos: nearly all of the students in our survey expected their friends to ask before posting a photo of them that might be harmful or embarrassing, and more than half expected to be asked before any photos of them were posted.

Privacy Ethics

This underlines the fact that in a networked context, our privacy is as much in the hands of others as in our own because they have the power to retransmit whatever content we choose to post online. This sharing is, of course, one of the major aspects of social networks, and research suggests that among youth there is significant status to be gained by having their content shared (either directly, by having it republished via means such as retweets, or indirectly by signs of approval such as likes.) But, as noted above, youth do not want their content shared indiscriminately: while they may aspire to have material they post shared, they want it to be seen by more of their desired audience, not by other audiences. This is why, as well as teaching youth to manage their own privacy, we need to teach them to respect others’ as well. A good example of this is one of the most high-profile reputational privacy issues of the last few years: sexting. While it’s probably not a good idea for anyone, particularly young people, to send sexts, there is little evidence that this in itself is a risky act: for example, one study done with American university students found that many reported positive experiences. Where harm is most likely to occur is when sexts are shared or forwarded. While a sext that is only ever seen by the original recipient is unlikely to cause any harm, the risks caused by sexts that are seen by other recipients are obvious. But while our research found that the presence of a household rule on treating others with respect online has a strong association with not being mean or cruel online, there is no relationship between the presence of such a rule and whether or not students forward sexts. It would seem, therefore, that those students who forward sexts do not see the decision whether or not to do so as an ethical question, or that they do not see the authors of the sexts as deserving of respect. Either way, it highlights a need to foster empathy in online contexts and to teach youth to think ethically and responsibly about sharing other people’s content.

Digital literacy: a comprehensive approach

The overlap between the need to teach youth how to manage their own privacy and to be responsible with others’ privacy demonstrates why MediaSmarts has adopted a comprehensive approach which recognizes that the different skills that make up digital literacy cannot be fully separated. In dealing with sexting, for example, youth need to not just be able to manage their own privacy and make ethical decisions about others’ but an understanding of the differences between healthy and unhealthy relationships (American research has found that sexts sent as a result of pressure or coercion are three times more likely to result in a negative outcome); an understanding of concepts of respect and consent; a knowledge of technical tools that can be used in the event that a photo is shared out of our control; an awareness of the means of redress provided by the platforms on which it was shared; a familiarity with our rights, responsibilities and opportunities to resolve the situation under Canadian and international law; and good cybersecurity practices (a quarter of young Canadians share their passwords with their best friends, and one in six share them with a boyfriend or girlfriend).

The good news is that Canadian youth generally want to learn these skills, and are more likely to turn to teachers and parents for information than to peers or online sources. Both of these groups, however, often feel out of their depth in dealing with digital issues, and need more support to provide youth with both skills and moral guidance. Almost nine in ten Canadian teachers, for instance, consider it “very important” that their students understand privacy issues, but just over a third are “very confident” in their ability to teach them what they need to know. To close that gap we need both to provide teachers with professional development in digital issues and to ensure that a comprehensive approach to digital literacy is embedded in the K-12 curriculum of each province and territory. Parents, meanwhile, feel exhausted by the pace of technological change and the pressure to keep on top of their children’s online activities, and are frequently driven by unfounded “stranger danger” fears to subject their children to constant surveillance. They need to be given accurate information, reassured that their traditional roles as caregivers and moral guides are not only still relevant but more essential than ever, and given practical tools for starting and maintaining conversations with their children on digital issues.

Digital Citizenship: a rights-based approach

Young Canadians’ continued need for moral and ethical guidance highlights the issue of digital citizenship. Even more than digital literacy, the precise definition of this term is still evolving: all too often it’s simply a list of “thou shalt not’s” which, while important, fail to engage youth. What may be more valuable is to approach digital citizenship not as a separate subject but as the ideal outcome of digital literacy education, and to view it in terms not just of the responsibilities but the rights of a digital citizen. This approach provides the essential link between teaching youth what they can do to manage and defend their privacy and empowering them to actually do it. Young Canadians need to know that they don’t give up their rights when they go online and, in fact, may have rights they’re not aware of. For instance, they’re often unaware of their rights as consumers, whether those provided by the terms of service they agree to (two-thirds of Canadian students don’t understand the purpose of privacy policies) or those provided by laws such as PIPEDA. While most of the major social networks have made significant strides in recent years in providing users, particularly youth, with more tools to manage their privacy and remove unwanted contact, our research showed that young Canadians either have little knowledge of or little confidence in these tools: just over one in six of the students surveyed said they would contact the service provider in order to have an unwanted photo removed.

Nor do young people give up their human and civil rights when they go online, despite the Internet’s borderless qualities. Both the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms and the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child provide youth with essential rights in their dealings with government, service providers, third parties and other Internet users. (While the Charter specifically addresses the legal relationship between individuals and government, the Supreme Court has used it as a guide in common law cases as well.) These include rights to privacy, to free expression, to education and access to information, and to be free from discrimination, fear, violence and harassment. Our research has shown that Canadian girls are more likely than boys to see the Internet as a frightening place, which may lead to narrowed opportunities and lower levels of confidence, resiliency and safety skills. Events of the last few years have shown clearly that many online spaces are hostile environments for women and girls, as well as for visible minorities and other marginalized groups. While the operators of many of these spaces have taken positive steps towards improving the climate, research has shown that cultural change is most effective when it comes from the community: youth need to be made aware of their rights in online spaces and empowered to build communities where their rights are respected.

Gender is an area where rights and reputational privacy overlap in a number of ways. As we’ve seen, the sharing of sexts — and, in particular, the fallout of sharing sexts — is highly gendered: while girls are neither more likely to send sexts nor to have them shared than boys, the consequences for girls of having a sext made public are significantly different. For this reason the ethics training described above must be supplemented with a rights-based approach to digital citizenship, in which students are taught the importance and inalienability of the right to privacy and to give or withhold consent (in a variety of contexts) and are encouraged to question the attitudes towards gender and sexuality that lead to the double standards applied to girls’ and boys’ sexts.

Another area where rights and privacy connect is parents’ attitudes towards privacy. Our research has shown that the emphasis on online risk in much government messaging and media coverage of online issues affecting youth — often, though not always, with the best of intentions — has produced a sense among parents that they must constantly monitor their children online. Aside from its corrosive effect on trust and open communication, surveillance — particularly covert surveillance — sends a message to youth that they have no right to privacy, harming parents’ credibility when they encourage children to value their privacy in other contexts. What is particularly unfortunate is that parents are perhaps best-placed to foster the rights-based digital citizenship described above, through discussing and establishing household rules that encourage youth to respect others’ rights, to exercise their own, and to understand the balancing of rights that informs the charter (by comparing, for example, the difference between constant surveillance and a parent accessing one’s account when she has reason to think something is seriously wrong).

Policymakers, technologists, educators all have a role to play in helping youth make good choices about their online reputation, but the responsibility doesn’t end there. Further research into youth norms and attitudes on privacy needs to be conducted, especially on those areas where it overlaps with other aspects of digital literacy. As well, parents, healthcare providers, public health authorities, youth advocates and counsellors, community groups, and even media producers need to be supported in ensuring youth receive a comprehensive education in digital literacy, empowering young people to know and exercise their rights, and fostering a culture in which everyone’s privacy rights are respected.

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