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Youth Don't Care?: Reflecting on North American Youth Online Privacy Research

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Kate Raynes-Goldie

The paper was commissioned by the Office of the Privacy Commissioner of Canada as part of the Insights on Privacy Speaker Series

September 2011

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.

Related video: Insights on Privacy: Matthew Johnson and Kate Raynes-Goldie

As social media becomes an embedded part of everyday life in the developed world, so too have concerns about online privacy. Even though social media can pose a privacy threat to individuals of all ages and backgrounds, the primary focus of most academic research and public discourse around online privacy and safety has been on younger users (Raynes-Goldie, 2011). Within this focus is often an assumption which, to varying degrees, frames youth as entirely privacy unaware or unconcerned (Albrechtslund, 2008). Some commentators have argued that youth are exhibitionists with questionable morals who do not appreciate the benefits of privacy (such as Samuelson, 2006). In the mainstream media and public opinion, especially in the United States, this narrative was exemplified by the 2006 moral panic which erupted around MySpace's teenaged users (Tufekci, 2008, p. 20). The panic was largely based on the idea that pedophiles could (and were) using social network sites (SNS) to sexually "prey" on teenage users, who, in turn, were seen as putting themselves in harm's way by sharing far too much personal information on their MySpace profiles (boyd & Jenkins, 2006; Marwick, 2008). Informed by these narratives, most privacy outreach and educational initiatives have focused on online safety, for example, teaching children and youth to protect themselves from online predators (Steeves, Milford, & Butts, 2010). Similarly, these fear-based narratives are invoked and amplified by companies that make censorware and other "online safety" products for children (Nolan, Raynes-Goldie, & McBride, In Press). Yet, as Canadian youth privacy researcher Valerie Steeves notes in her review of the literature, "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" (Steeves et al., 2010, p. 4).

This approach to online privacy that frames youth as unaware or unconcerned, at least in academic research, is shifting. As the work of Steeves and others suggests, the narrative of youth as ignorant victims has largely been shown to be overly simplistic, or in the least, no longer accurate (Utz and Krämer, 2009). This change in perspective provides an opportunity for critical reflection. Why did the narrative around online youth privacy unfold the way it did? What important factors were missed along the way? In this summary of some of the key themes in the literature on youth, privacy and social network sites (the category of social media that has garnered the most concern), I will provide some insight into these questions with the aim to inform future research and outreach initiatives.

In the early academic literature on social network sites, responsibility was implicitly or explicitly placed on young users with respect to privacy violations. Academically, this negative conception of youth attitudes regarding privacy is best summarised in Susan B. Barnes' privacy paradox. Put simply, the privacy paradox holds that while adults are concerned about invasion of privacy, teens freely give up personal information (Barnes, 2006). More recently, the privacy paradox has been broadened to encompass a discrepancy between privacy concerns and privacy behaviours (Utz & Krämer, 2009).

In 2008, the accuracy of the privacy paradox was opened up for examination in a number of academic studies (Albrechtslund, 2008; Lampe, Ellison, & Steinfield, 2008; Livingstone, 2008; Tufekci, 2008). As more studies took this approach, the narrative of uninformed or unconcerned youth became much less black and white. Taken together, these studies suggest that other factors needed to be taken into account, such as the benefits of publicity, or that youth attitudes were now changing towards being more privacy concerned (boyd & Hargittai, 2010; Brandtzæg, Lüders, & Skjetne, 2010; Stutzman & Kramer-Duffield, 2010; Utz & Krämer, 2009).

Even though the privacy paradox has largely been discounted as too simplistic, it is still a pervasive narrative in much of the current discourse around online privacy and youth (boyd & Hargittai, 2010). There are four factors that likely played a role in shaping this perception. The first of these factors have to do with historical social attitudes towards young people. As Alice Marwick (2008) and Nancy Baym (2010, pp. 25-30, 41-44) show in their respective historical surveys, such fear-based narratives of youth and new technologies have a long historical precedence (for example, the telephone or comic books), suggesting they are on culturally entrenched ageism and technological dystopian fears rather than based on the reality of the situation.

The second factor relates to the demographics of early Facebook and MySpace users. Even though the research focus on youth, SNS and privacy suggest that risky online privacy behaviours are tied to age, there is another factor that needs to be considered: it was primarily young people who were the early adopters of MySpace and Facebook (boyd, 2007). As such, youth were not only the most obvious users to study, they were also the first users to begin negotiating the novel privacy challenges and threats posed by social media. As adults begin to use SNS they are faced with similar challenges. Indeed, more recent research on adult SNS users shows adults, in some areas, face greater privacy risks than their younger counterparts (Brandtzæg et al., 2010; Lenhart, 2009).

Third, early accounts of online youth privacy were likely further complicated by the fact that privacy often has a varied set of meanings that can depend on social, cultural and developmental factors. As mentioned earlier, the focus of online privacy education programs for youth is largely around safety. Historically, the privacy regulators have been focused on privacy in terms of data protection, or what I call institutional privacy (Raynes-Goldie, 2010). As Zynep Tufekci (2008) notes, conceptions of privacy are traditionally based on total withdrawl, or "the right to be left alone" (Warren & Brandeis, 1890). Such a conception does not acknowledge that there are benefits to disclosure, such as relationship and reputation building. In this context, any disclosure on the part of a young user seems like a poor privacy decision.The result is that when researchers investigate privacy behaviours and concerns among youth, they may go looking for a concern about online predators or a desire for total withdrawl. If this aspect of privacy does not appear to be a concern to study participants, it can appear to researchers that privacy is not a concern, full stop.

While all aspects of privacy are important, what is often overlooked is an aspect of privacy that is tied up with the very reason SNS is so appealing to youth: social privacy (Raynes-Goldie, 2010). Based on my doctoral research (Raynes-Goldie, Forthcoming), I define social privacy as having two key components: the ability to navigate and manage various social contexts, and most critically for this discussion, the management of what is disclosed about oneself by others (also called identity or reputation management). As Leslie Regan Shade notes, children use social media to engage in identity play, self-validation and social interaction (Shade, 2008). Thus, even if they do not see their concerns in terms of privacy, children and youth are still very much aware and concerned about social privacy issues. Indeed, as Steeves notes in her best practices for educational initatives, children and youth should be encouraged to critically reflect on the "relationship between privacy and identity, trust and social relationships" (Steeves et al., 2010, p. 7). Further, identifying reputation and identity as privacy issues and connecting them with institutional privacy concerns - for example showing how a leak of their personal information might harm their reputation - would likely be beneficial in helping children and youth to better protect privacy from all angles.

Fourth and finally, is the overwhelming focus on users in privacy, youth and SNS research and outreach (Beer, 2008). Thus far, most research has tended to focus on privacy violations resulting from "shortcomings on the part of the user" (Albrechtslund, 2008) while neglecting the role the companies behind social media may play in that privacy violation. As a number of recent design and policy decisions by Google and Facebook have demonstrated, social media companies have been responsible for creating significant privacy threats. Google's real names policy, for example, requires that users use their legal names on their new social network, Google+. Users who do not follow this policy by using their full, legal names on Google+ face account deletion (Greenfield, 2011).

These policy and design choices are not just motivated by profit. In my doctoral research, I found a clear link between Facebook's privacy choices and an ideologically driven agenda whereby "radical transparency" is pushed as a social good (Kirkpatrick, 2010). According to the ideology reflected in Facebook, the world can be improved if everyone is more authentic, open, connected and transparent, in other words, less private (Baloun, 2007; Smith, 2008; Zuckerberg, 2009).

Broadly, Facebook's privacy orientation is reflective of a way of thinking about the world which is common to Silicon Valley technology culture, where most social media companies are headquartered. Rooted in technological determinism, cybernetics and libertarianism, various aspects of this ideology have been identified under a variety of names, such as the Californian Ideology (Barbrook & Cameron, 1995) or cybernetic totalism (Lanier, 2010). Indeed, this way of thinking about privacy in Silicon valley is common and longstanding. In 1999, the CEO of Sun Microsystems dismissed privacy concerns related to their new chip by saying "You have zero privacy anyway. Get over it" (Sprenger, 1999).

As Google and Facebook show, user studies reveal only half of the picture with respect to privacy choices and behaviours. Social media companies, driven by various motivating factors, make descisions that shape the privacy options available to youth and adults alike (Langlois, Elmer, McKelvey, & Devereaux, 2009). Eric Schmidt, chairman of Google, told users that if they did not like the real names policy, they should not use the service (Banks, 2011). Schmidt's position conceals the potential social and economic cost of opting out (Bigge, 2006; Marwick, 2011), thereby obfuscating the almost total lack of real choice which users face.

While most research approaches are now shifting towards more nuanced accounts of youth and privacy that take into account differing and varied definions of privacy, there is still work to be done. As history has shown, there is a tendency to approach youth and new technologies from a somewhat moralistic and fear-based perspective. Such an approach tends to simplify and cloud early academic accounts, as was the case with online youth privacy. Researchers and educators need to be aware of such a tendency so that it might be avoided in the future. Further, the role of social media companies in shaping the privacy landscape remains largely unexamined. Steeves (2010) suggests that privacy education initiatives should encourage children to think critically about how ideologies (such as consumerism or advertising messages) shape their online exeriences. Researchers, policy makers and educators need to be equally critically minded with respect to social media companies in shaping future outreach initatives and research projects


The author wishes to acknowledge the Office of the Privacy Commissioner of Canada for funding this paper, as well as Melanie McBride of the EDGE Lab, Ryerson University, for her helpful feedback.

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