Kids Care about Their Online Privacy as Much as Adults Do and Want it Protected, Researcher Says

May 23, 2021

Contrary to popular belief, youth value their privacy and are disturbed that online platform providers collect their information and steer them towards specific digital content.

That’s the finding of a recent study led by Kara Brisson-Boivin, Director of Research at MediaSmarts, Canada’s Centre for Digital and Medial Literacy, who is calling for new digital literacy tools and privacy policies to ensure young Canadians understand how algorithms work so that they can be empowered to make better decisions about their online activity.

Sharing findings from eight focus groups recently conducted with Canadian youth aged 13 to 17, Brisson-Boivin will show that young people don’t like being manipulated by online platforms and content creators. In fact, when it comes to the common practice of data brokering, their message is clear: they think selling their data without their knowledge or meaningful consent is a violation of their privacy.

“Often there’s a stereotype that young Canadians don’t care about their online privacy as much as adults do,” Brisson-Boivin said. “What we found in our research is that young people do care deeply about things like consent, privacy and data security, they simply understand and express it differently than adults do.”

Using an educational game-based approach, the focus groups taught youth about how artificial intelligence and algorithms are used by online platform providers such as YouTube, Instagram and TikTok to gather their data and then direct them to particular online content. At the start of the game, participating youth saw algorithms as their “friend,” explained Brisson-Boivin, but it didn’t take long for them to change their minds.

“The more they played, the more they expressed concern over the kinds of assumptions that algorithms were making to arrive at conclusions about their sexuality, gender, health status or race,” she said.

Samantha McAleese, Research and Evaluation Associate at MediaSmarts and co-presenter at Congress 2021, added: “By the end of the game, they were quite alarmed about issues like algorithmic bias and were expressing concern about the risk for those people already at risk of experiencing racism, marginalization or discrimination."    

Based on the findings, MediaSmarts is now calling for new digital literacy tools to ensure young Canadians understand how algorithms work so they can make informed decisions about their online activity. MediaSmarts is also recommending clearer and more accessible privacy policies, written with youth in mind, and is recommending that platform providers, educators and legislators give youth a seat at the table to discuss digital privacy issues that directly impact their day-to-day lives.

“We need to translate legislation and policy in a way that kids can access and understand. Right now, they have no choice but to live in an adult online world with adult created problems,” Brisson-Boivin said. “More importantly, we’re advocating for online spaces that are distinctly for youth, by youth, and our research shows, kids are eager to be a part of that solution.”