Classroom Technology Q&A

Teens Worry About Online Privacy: Q&A With Researcher Claire Fontaine

By Benjamin Herold — April 16, 2018 6 min read
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Contrary to popular stereotypes, many young people are acutely concerned about online privacy, spending significant time managing how they present themselves on social media and worrying about what happens to the digital trails they leave behind.

That’s the takeaway, at least, from new research presented here Sunday at the annual conference of the American Association of Educational Research by Claire Fontaine of the Data & Society Institute.

As part of a small study, Fontaine and colleagues interviewed 28 teens and young adults, ranging from 16 to 26 years old. All were low-income New Yorkers, all owned a smartphone or similar mobile device, and all regularly used at least one social media platform.

How anxious were these young people about navigating the online world?

“It’s like getting a tattoo every time you go on the internet,” said one young woman in the study.

Those experiences and feelings have significant implications for K-12, Fontaine said.

Too often, she contended, schools frame online privacy primarily as a matter of personal responsibility, feeding young people’s sense that they are responsible for achieving something that Silicon Valley’s current business practices and a lax regulatory environment make structurally impossible.

Compounding matters, Fontaine said, schools have rushed to embrace technology-related initiatives such as 1-to-1 computing, personalized learning, and computer-science education, putting more pressure on students to expand their digital footprints—despite the quiet ambivalence they may be feeling.

And worst of all, she said, schools are generally failing to meet young people where they are, leaving them alone to wrestle with a huge challenge that—if recent headlines are any indication—even the adults and institutions in society are ill-positioned to handle.

“I think [young people] are longing for spaces to process the challenges that they’re facing,” Fontaine said in an interview.

Following is a transcript of our conversation, edited for length and clarity.

There’s a perception out there that young people don’t care about privacy. Is that what you found?

Across the board, the young people we spoke to were deeply concerned about privacy and had a great appetite for adult guidance.

Some had a vague, ambient sense that mobile devices and social media platforms were not safe, secure spaces. Other young people were intimately aware of the vulnerabilities in these systems. But the common thread was deep concern about issues of privacy and security, and a sense of vulnerability and wanting more adult guidance than they had experienced.

They want to have conversations about their questions, insecurities, anxieties, concerns, and negative experiences. They’re longing for spaces to process the challenges that they’re facing.

You describe online privacy violations as “inevitable and widespread.” Why?

Unless you are going to great lengths to customize your phone, it is by default tracking your movements through time and space. It is sending to companies information on where you live, places you frequent, the grocery stores you use. Many apps that you download, depending on their settings and terms of service, may be transmitting the same types of information and selling it on to third parties.

Parents, teachers, and young people should be aware that the big consumer tech platforms are also creating massive dossiers on them.

Did the young people in your study understand that?

There was greater awareness of interpersonal, rather than structural, types of threats.

Most of the anxiety they felt was around whether they were getting into stressful interactions with people they might see in the street or in the hallway, because of what they were posting online. Or they were asking, “Why are my parents posting to my Facebook page?” or “Oh my goodness, I wasn’t thinking when I started my Instagram account when I was 12 that those pictures would be findable when I was applying to colleges.”

You describe that as “context collapse.” What does that term mean?

Typically, we have different identities that we take up in different spaces. We behave a different way in school than we do in the street than we do at the dinner table.

“Context collapse” refers to the structural propensity of social media platforms to leak information from the audience for whom it was intended to other audiences.

How does that affect young people?

From a youth development perspective, adolescence is supposed to be a period when you try on different identities and see what fits. My question is whether the internet is a hostile space for that.

During his testimony before Congress, for example, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg emphasized that ostensibly users do have control over what content they post and who gets to see what. But the process of figuring that out is very laborious. There’s also an assumption within the platform that anything you put up is public across all contexts, and if you’d like to change that, the onus is on you.

One of your big conclusions is that young people have to do a lot of “invisible work” to navigate all this. What does that look like?

It’s usually done retrospectively, when they’ve realized there is some information they don’t want to be out there. Then all of a sudden, they’re trying to remember what information they used to set up an account, or how to get into old accounts and clean it up. It’s very reactive, driven by a perceived need to scrub something that is potentially dangerous.

I think it feels very alienating for them. In some of the interviews, there were a lot of statements alluding to a feeling of self-consciousness and hyper-self-awareness that almost created a form of paralysis.

Other people spent a lot of energy creating a curated online version of themselves, a virtual version of themselves that would be palatable to a general audience.

Isn’t that just being a responsible digital citizen?

A 12-year old shouldn’t have to present herself as an employable white-collar worker when she goes on to social media for the first time in middle school. I think that’s the project of adulthood, not adolescence. We’re seeing the adultification of teenage-hood.

You write a lot about the problems with framing online privacy as solely a matter of personal responsibility. What are the downsides of that approach for young people?

No amount of personal responsibility is going to secure your privacy and security online. The idea that it’s possible to do so is a lie.

At the same time, you write, “opting out of online life is not a viable option for upwardly mobile young people.”

It’s a lot of pressure, a lot to carry around every day—for all of us. I think that’s the reason so many people have put our heads in the sand for so long.

What message would you want to send to K-12 educators, administrators, and policymakers?

I think that schools have a responsibility to be transparent with students and parents about the tradeoffs associated with the technologies they use. There may be more efficient communications, for example, but that may come with creating a record of all those communications that schools can’t control.

Young people should have a genuine ability to opt out.

And unless we engage with these invisible emotional dimensions, these fears and anxieties that young people have about online participation, we may run into obstacles we can’t otherwise explain.

See also:

A version of this news article first appeared in the Digital Education blog.