Summary of Research on Youth Online Privacy

Valerie Steeves

Commissioned by the Office of the Privacy Commissioner of Canada

March 2010

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

Executive Summary

This report seeks to inform educational initiatives to promote the protection of children’s online privacy by summarizing the social science research findings regarding: how youth conceptualize and manage their personal information in an online environment; and how youth understand and experience their privacy in an online environment, including their preconceptions and attitudes. It also identifies a set of best practices for outreach and public education to help youth manage their online privacy.

General Trends in the Research

Although research continues to engage with the ways in which children’s online information is collected and the effectiveness of regulatory responses that incorporate fair information practices, it is very critical of both market-driven collection and data protection responses. Privacy education must go beyond fair information practices and encourage children to critically interrogate the role of advertising, marketing, and consumerism as drivers of children’s media products.

Often educational initiatives designed to support this more critical engagement with the online environment are framed in terms of safety. However, research clearly indicates that the fears that children are at risk of sexual predation and/or harassment online are over-stated at best and subject to moral panic at worst. Moreover, safety concerns are often used to legitimize increasing levels of surveillance that stigmatize youth, leading to two contradictory results: the child is a victim who must be placed under surveillance for protection; and the child is an anti-social threat who must be placed under surveillance to protect society.

Perhaps more importantly, educational initiatives that focus on teaching children not to disclose personal information because of safety risks are limited because they are out of step with what children know about and experience on the Internet. Many children rely on online media as a platform for identity play, social connectedness and self-validation, and this is the context in which they experience – or fail to experience – online privacy.

Simple rules limiting disclosure do affect behaviour, but this correlation disappears the more a child uses the Net for identity play or social interaction. Likewise, parental supervision does not eliminate but merely reduces disclosure. As such, the current regulatory model alone cannot adequately protect children who have integrated the Net most fully into their social lives.

A loss of privacy affects the child’s conception of self, trust and authority. Surveillance also reconstructs parenting, child care, the provision of social services, and school by embedding discourses of risk reduction and responsibilization into the child’s social world. Ultimately, a loss of privacy interferes with the child’s developmental needs to manage risky situations and become resilient, consolidate a pro-social identity, develop relationships based on trust and experience democratic citizenship. Education to advance children’s online privacy must therefore go beyond informational campaigns, and begin to problematize and question the real affects of surveillance on children’s lives, including the crucial relationship between privacy, trust and democracy.

Managing Personal Information Online

Children frequently post information online simply because there is an entry field for the information on the site. Disclosure is also tied to perceived benefits – the more a site promises them, the more likely they are to disclose.

The information they do reveal is often highly personal. This type of disclosure is motivated by a desire to express oneself, present a positive self image and remain connected to real world friends.

Disclosure practices vary by gender. Girls are more likely than boys to post a profile but they are also more likely to try to keep that profile private. Boys who do post profiles, on the other hand, feel more comfortable than girls with disclosing their last name, city/town of residence and cell phone number. At the same time, boys are more likely to lie on their profiles, whereas girls are more likely to be truthful with the information they do post. Online parental supervision is also gendered. Parents of girls are more likely to check up on them online than parents of boys.

Nearly 80 per cent of teens report that young people are not careful enough about releasing personal information online. Many have devised strategies to protect their online privacy, including: physically shielding the screen, deleting histories; counter-surveillance of teachers; secret email accounts; giving out false information; providing incomplete information; and going to different Web sites that do not ask for personal information.

Young People’s Attitudes and Experiences

Children perceive the Web to be more private because it provides them with ways to control who can overhear their conversations.

The perception that online space is private space is reinforced by the following elements: it allows them to communicate behind a screen; they can either bypass the physical constraints of face-to-face communications (such as judgments based on body type or facial features) or exercise greater control over their image and/or conversations with peers; the design of social networking sites appear to draw acquaintances together in a more or less reclusive online venue; the sites ask for email addresses and establish membership requirements; public blogs have minimal content restrictions and are relatively free of punishment for transgressive communications.

Children who know they are being watched report that they continue to participate in online communications because they feel they do not have a choice – online communication has become an essential part of their social world and one of the ways in which they connect with friends and family.

Many continue to assert a claim of privacy to online information even though it is posted on the Internet. From the child’s perspective, the problem is not that they reveal but that others – unintended others – watch them. Creating regulatory mechanisms based on public accessibility is therefore problematic because the mere fact of technical accessibility does not affect young people’s expectation that their conversations are private and should be treated as such.

Children do not perceive that they are giving up their privacy by posting information online; instead, they are redefining privacy to take into account the ways in which transparency enhances their personal and social experiences. They rely on new rules of etiquette to protect their privacy and are able to police privacy invasions among their own peers because, paradoxically, online invasions of privacy, particularly within social networks, take place in the public sphere.

Young teens, who are developmentally pre-disposed to participate in identity play, tend to post elaborate, stylized, comprehensive personal profiles. Older teenagers post profiles which contain more or less authentic, straightforward information which is made available to friends and acquaintances who are also known in the real world, reflecting an age-appropriate developmental interest in authenticity and genuine links to others.

Young people already engage in at least an elementary form of self-protection in virtual spaces and, even subconsciously, youth evaluate which private information is too private to make publicly available.

Best Practices for Outreach and Public Education

Although informational campaigns that tell children about fair information practices do serve a purpose, they are not sufficient in themselves to adequately meet children’s needs.

Educational materials that simply tell children not to disclose their information online are likely to fail because they do not take into account the fact that online media are an integral part of many children’s social world and that young people benefit from online transparency.

Similarly, safety oriented campaigns are ineffective because they focus on dangers that are both highly unlikely and at odds with young people’s social experiences. They can also encourage adults, especially parents and teachers, to place children under online surveillance, in effect invading children’s privacy to protect children’s privacy.

Fair information practices campaigns should therefore focus on practical skills, such as how to: use privacy settings; delete an account; ask someone to remove a tag from a tagged photo; avoid filling in non-mandatory fields on registration and profile pages; provide false or misleading information when appropriate; effectively use pseudonyms; complain about unfair practices; and find alternative Web sites that do not collect their information.

At same time, educational initiatives that encourage children to critically interrogate the broader issues at play should be prioritized. These issues include:

  • The role of advertising, marketing, and consumerism as drivers of children’s online experiences
  • The relationship between privacy and identity, trust and social relationships
  • The role privacy plays in democratic relationships
  • The relationship between surveillance, risk reduction and responsibilization

Privacy education needs to illustrate the ways in which surveillance and consumerism come together to constrain girls’ potential for equality and manipulate their private relationships for commercial purposes, as corporations intentionally structure online spaces to embed marketing messages, encourage a certain type of consumption and entrench the legitimacy of a certain kind of body and a certain kind of girl.

It is also important to educate adults, especially parents and teachers, about the important role privacy plays in healthy child development. Parents who talk to their children about online issues and encourage them to develop their own views of the world raise more privacy-savvy children. In addition, educational initiatives that incorporate discussion with other reference groups, including peers, teacher, and parents, play an important role in positively affecting children’s online privacy behaviour.


A literature review was conducted in 2007 in order to identify major trends in academic research on children’s privacy. This review indicated that researchers in a number of fields were doing work that could inform our understanding of the area, although few addressed the issue of children’s privacy directly. For example, non-governmental organizations in both Canada and the United States had done research on children’s use of new technologies but few had focussed solely on privacy issues. Those few studies that had done so had typically sought to measure compliance with regulatory schemes thought to protect their privacy, rather than to explore children’s privacy preferences and practices.

Turow’s 2001 report entitled Privacy Policies on Children’s Websites: Do They Play by the Rules? is a good example. The research was published by theAnnenberg Public Policy Centre of the University of Pennsylvania, a leading American research centre. The vast majority of the Centre’s work focuses on children’s use of traditional media. When children began to migrate to online media, the Centre gathered data about information collection practices on children’s online playgrounds and published a single report on the issue. Given the fact that the question of privacy fit within a broader research agenda focusing on children and media, the paper focused less on children’s lived experience of privacy than it did on the effectiveness of regulatory mechanisms to protect the flow of children’s online information.  

Since the early 2000s, researchers from a number of disciplines have begun to examine the meaning of children’s online practices, and the body of knowledge on children’s online behaviours and experiences has grown considerably. At the same time, an international consensus has emerged to prioritize educational initiatives to promote the protection of children’s online privacy

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