Online privacy, digital trust, and young people

Written by Kate Mannell and Rys Farthing

Young people are prolific digital users, and often engage with the commercial digital world in distinct ways. They create unique data footprints, and have distinct understandings about privacy but these differences are rarely considered in policy discussions. On March 23rd, the Australian Research Council Centre of Excellence for the Digital Child held a discussion about young people’s perceptions of privacy, building on emerging international research including Australia, to help inform submissions to the Privacy Act Review. 

The talk was chaired by Dr Kate Mannell, and provided an overview of research undertaken by Dr Rys Farthing exploring young people’s understandings about digital privacy, and developed youth-authored principles for governing privacy policy. This research used participatory mixed methods to engage with young people aged 13-18 from Antigua & Barbuda Ghana, Slovenia and Australia, and was action-focussed. It used focus groups, depth-interviews and polling, and young participants were enabled to speak to policy makers about their perspectives.

young fashionable woman swiping on smartphone

Youth-centric notions of privacy were developed by young people the research, which included four key elements:

  1. Privacy was described as the ability to conceal information
  2. Privacy was relational, and aimed to protect young people from a range “others” including family, peers, schools, the State and commercial actors
  3. If realised, privacy creates a sense of safety and wellbeing
  4. Privacy was described as a right or entitlement 

It is curious that privacy was described as a right because in Australia in particular, young people talked about needing to “trade off” their right to online privacy with the right to access the digital world. Privacy was described as a balancing act. This produced a unique idea about what it meant to “trust” companies with online privacy. Young people felt they had no option but to trust these companies if they wanted to participate online.

This belief that privacy was something you needed to “trade off” also created a different set of ‘privacy solutions’ in the Australian focus groups. Young people’s perspectives around the issue of ‘targeted advertising’ online highlights this difference perfectly. In Slovenia, Ghana, Antigua & Barbuda the young people involved in the focus groups called for a ban on targeted advertising, Australian participants moderated their requests. Ultimately, they wanted a ban, saying

“fundamentally no one wants their data used to sell them things” and

“we support a ban on behavioural advertising, but we are aware it might be unpopular or difficult to implement”, 

Yet, instead of asking for a ban, they instead called for targeted advertising to be opt-in.  This was deemed more “realistic”. There was a perception among the Australian young people that privacy protections needed to be realistic, and that some “trading off” of their privacy to commercial surveillance would always be inevitable.

In the talk, we noted that, happily, the Privacy Act Review launched after these focus groups does indeed call for a prohibition on targeted advertising to young people, yet it was still telling that young people felt unable to even imagine strong privacy protections in Australia.

We were joined in the talk by three young experts (13, 17 and 18 years old) who had participated in the research. 

They shared more of their  thoughts about the “trade off” of privacy online:

  • “It isn’t complete privacy”… “when i use my computer my privacy will never completely be my privacy”
  • “It really desensitizes a lot of people (to privacy violations) because you can’t really think of any other way”
  • “If there was somehow a middle, where you could have a decent amount of risk and a decent amount of fun, that would be cool”
  • There “a sense of unease from people watching you”

They also shared their thoughts about the desirability of better alternatives, but why it was hard to imagine strong policy protections:

  • “That would be awesome, to go online and know my privacy will be mine”
  • “I’d love an alternative, but there really isn’t”
  • “It’s not getting better and we don’t have a lot of options”
  • “Little steps, Little steps towards something better. You have to work really hard to be protected online. If there was more effort put into protecting people at this age, it would be really good”
  • We discussed why it might be hard for young people in Australia to get worked up about this, and they talked about it being difficult to imagine what the consequences were, especially since it’s been happening their whole lives.  “What’s the harm from privacy?”
  • We talked about EdTech being particularly difficult to understand. “We trust our schools. If these orgs are doing bad things with our data, they wouldn’t have recommended them”

They also expanded on thoughts about current approaches to privacy, which rely on young people “consenting” to data surveillance:

  • You can’t really not consent “there really isn’t any other way”. We have “no choice but to use them” (online apps and website)
  • But readable privacy policies and collection notices might still be important, because they want to know what the risks are and what measures they could take to mitigate them individually “At the very least we need to know the risks” and “what are the ways to lessen the risk”

Want to find out more?

Young people’s submission’s to a Senate Inquiry into the Use of Children’s Data is here (Young participants also gave oral evidence to the Privacy Act Review).

The Centre for the Digital Child’s submission to the Privacy Act Review is available here. An early article about the research is available here

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Our researchers and partners produce regular blog posts and research outputs focused on children and digital technology.