Privacy | Topics

What teenagers have to say about privacy protection

By : Maryse Guénette
Photo Credit: Ethan Johnson (Unsplash)

You think teenagers don’t care about protecting their personal information? Wrong! In fact, when we explained the various issues to them, they came up with some inspiring solutions.

So you never read the consent clauses contained on the various online platforms because you find them too long and complicated? Or you tell yourself it’s not worth it, since regardless of what it says, you’ll have to click on “I agree” anyway if you want to access the site? When it comes to this issue, teenagers think and behave just like you, according to a study recently conducted by MediaSmarts, Young Canadians Speak Out: A Qualitative Research Project on Privacy and Consent.

That doesn’t mean that young people are indifferent to protecting their privacy. “On the contrary, much of our research shows that they care a great deal,” says Samantha McAleese, co-author of the study and a research and evaluation associate with MediaSmarts, an organization that has been studying young people’s behaviour for some 20 years. “This new study looked at whether teens feel they are giving meaningful consent to the different websites and platforms they visit.  We also wanted to find out if they understand privacy policies and, if not, what could help them to understand them better.”


What bothered them a little, a lot

The first step in the study was to make sure the participants were sufficiently informed. They were shown a video to ensure they all had the same basic information. They were then asked to share their perceptions and experiences with regard to online consent.

Which practices bothered them most? One issue they brought up was location tracking.

Young people generally like the idea of location because it allows them to get suggestions about where to shop or about content that is relevant to their interests. But they would like to know, if they are being tracked on a day-to-day basis, which app they are being tracked by, and what impacts it could have on their lives. They would also like to be able to turn the tracking mechanism on or off whenever they feel like it.”

Samantha McAleese, co-author of the study and a research and evaluation associate with MediaSmarts

These were not their main concerns, however. In fact, young people are most worried about the impact that information they have posted online could have on their futures. For example, they wonder if they might be denied access to college, university or a job because of what they once posted online. We can all think of things we did in our youth that we wouldn’t want a future employer to have access to,” McAleese says. “What’s different today is that so many of those things happen online. What young people do now becomes permanent or can become permanent.”

To remedy this, many stated that they want to be able to remove published information, and even exercise a “right to be forgotten” or “right to erasure.” We should note that such a measure does exist in the European Union under the General Data Protection Regulation. According to the MediaSmarts study, this regulation “gives individuals the right to ask organizations to delete their personal data” in specific circumstances.  It should be noted that Quebec and Ontario are currently studying the possibility of according citizens the right to be forgotten.

Finally, the young participants expressed surprise, even betrayal, upon discovering the potential consequences of collecting data online. When asked to comment on current privacy policies and consent processes, one teenage girl declared that she found it strange “that you have to click the ‘I agree to the Terms of Service’ button when most of the time you haven’t read them”. Another participant said that the problem is “that you have to consent to too many things at once.” The report also points out the contrast between the “opacity of the privacy policies” and the simplicity of the processes for obtaining consent.


Teenage problem-solvers

We didn’t just listen to the young people. They were also asked to come up with ideas about what could be done to improve things. This creative session was preceded by a kind of brainstorming session. “We wanted to make sure that everyone understood what we were talking about and what valid consent means to the Office of the Privacy Commissioner.”

What did they come up with? First, they suggested simplifying the language (using words, phrases and sentences that are easier to understand), presenting the information in less dense format, using subheadings and bullets to help readers find their way around, using boldface type to add emphasis, and interspersing the text with images and videos. Recommendations similar to those made by the proponents of plain language.

Other, bolder, proposals were also made. One suggestion was that mechanisms be set in place to ensure that users have read and understood the policy before they accept it. These include the addition of a timer (displayed on-screen for a certain minimum time to permit the policy to be read), a form (to allow users to consent to some things but not to others) or pop-up windows (to remind users of the potential consequences of publishing content just as they are about to do so). It was also suggested that there should be a mechanism for going back at any point.

All of these suggestions resulted in a series of extremely interesting prototypes that could serve as inspiration for the industry.

From these young people’s reflections and suggestions came recommendations for decision-makers and the virtual platforms themselves. For example, the study recommends that consumers should have easier access to terms of use and privacy policies, be better informed about what will be done with their information, have more control over the information they provide, and enjoy better protection. It is also recommended that decision-makers take into account the concerns and suggestions of young people in setting regulations and that businesses do the same in creating privacy policies and consent procedures.

The Study

Young Canadians Speak Out: A Qualitative Research Report on Privacy and Consent (MediaSmarts, 2020) gives a voice to young people aged 13 to 16, a clientele that uses social networks . It focuses on their opinions about the consent they give to social platforms—what they believe they have consented to, what they have actually consented to, and what they wish they should consent to.

To obtain their results, the authors conducted three focus groups in Ottawa on a total of 22 young people aged 13 to 16. The participants were first shown a video that included a discussion of consent in the context of data collection and the right to privacy under federal law. They then led a discussion about their knowledge and experiences. Finally, participants were invited to design a “prototype”– a mechanism for procuring meaningful consent.