Whether it’s texts, chats, photos or videos — teens have so many ways to connect online nowadays it can be hard for parents to keep up! This episode explores some of the ways teens are using online technologies, their approach to privacy, and how parents can help them navigate the digital world safely and ethically. The commissioner speaks with Matthew Johnson, Director of Education at MediaSmarts, Canada’s not-for-profit centre dedicated to helping children and youth develop the critical thinking skills they need to become informed digital citizens.
Hello, I’m Patricia Kosseim, Ontario’s Information and Privacy Commissioner. You’re listening to Info Matters, a podcast about people, privacy, and access to information. We dive into conversations with people from all walks of life and hear real stories about the access and privacy issues that matter most to them.
Hello, listeners out there. Thank you for tuning in to another episode of Info Matters. As the pandemic drags on, we’re all spending a lot of time online, and that’s particularly true for our kids. In today’s fast-paced, digital society, teaching kids how to build the digital literacy skills they need to navigate the tricky terrain of the online world and protect their personal information matters. It really matters. That’s why my office has identified Children and Youth in a Digital World as one of our strategic priorities that will guide our work over the next four years.
In fact, in one of our previous episodes, I spoke to Daniel Solove about how we can initiate conversations about privacy with our children from a very young age, using fictional story books of heroes and villains to teach them about the importance of personal privacy as a human value. More recently, my office launched a kid’s activity book called Privacy Pursuit, geared at school-aged children so they can learn how to protect their personal information online through games and activities that they can play with friends and family in a fun and accessible way.
In this episode, I’d like to turn our focus to teens and explore privacy from their perspective, recognizing their more mature and sophisticated capacity to understand the online world around them. What kinds of supports can we provide them to handle the risks associated with always being connected? How can we help them engage with others online in a more ethical and empathetic way?
In this episode, we’ll be talking about some of the ways we can equip ourselves and our teenagers with the skills we all need to be active and informed digital citizens. My guest for this episode is Matthew Johnson. He’s the Director of Education for MediaSmarts: Canada’s Centre for Digital and Media Literacy.
MediaSmarts is a nonprofit organization that develops digital and media literacy programs and resources for Canadian homes, schools, and communities. Matthew’s the author of many of MediaSmarts’s lessons, parent materials, and interactive resources, and he’s a lead on MediaSmarts’s research projects. Matthew, welcome to the show.
Thank you. Great to be here.
Now, I’ve known you and your wonderful work for many years, but many of our online listeners may not. So why don’t you start by telling us a little bit about yourself and how you got into the field of digital and media literacy, and why do you think it’s so important?
Before I started at MediaSmarts, I worked for about 10 years as a classroom teacher, mostly at the high school level. My original background is actually in theater, and it actually comes in handy surprisingly often when I’m doing pirate voices in both official languages for Privacy Pirates, which is one of our privacy resources for younger kids, or when I’m doing presentations, when I’m doing podcasts, things like that.
I’m also a dad of two boys, 10 and 13. So I’ve seen them exploring different media as they’ve been growing up. I’ve seen them encountering the issues that we work in, everything from privacy to ethics, to misinformation, sometimes in really surprising ways. It’s been a real insight for me. And of course, it gives me every day a fresh understanding of just how important it is that we teach kids digital media literacy skills. They are increasingly having digitized lives.
That is particularly true for teenagers even more so than for younger kids, where so much of their social lives, so much of even their interaction with their families occurs now either directly through technology or assisted by technology. So helping them to deal with issues like privacy and privacy ethics, helping them to develop conscious habits of empathy when they’re interacting in ways that don’t necessarily provide the kinds of empathy cues like facial expression or tone of voice that we rely on, helping them to accurately find and evaluate information online. All of these things are life skills that they need to learn early.
The implications of and the consequences of their online experiences can follow them for so long, whether it is the consequences of making a bad choice about sharing a photo, or whether it’s the consequences of the data profile that is being collected about them that years or even decades from now could affect which job ads they see or whether their resume gets picked out of the virtual pile or whether they get a mortgage. All of these things can have an impact on them for their entire lives.
So we really do have a mission at MediaSmarts. We’ve always been, of course, believers in the importance of digital media literacy, but it becomes more important with every passing day.
Well, thank you, Matthew, for that fascinating introduction. I think that really helps set the backdrop for our conversation today. I’m going to start right off the bat with the burning question. People often say that in this day and age, kids don’t really care about privacy. Is that true? Or do they care just in different ways?
Research has shown that young people really do still care about their privacy, but they do conceptualize it in ways that older generations may not recognize. Teenagers are not interested in interacting with strangers online in almost every case. They use social media to interact with their friends.
But that does mean that they’re much more conscious of reputational privacy. They’re much more careful about curating their online image. Our research has shown that in many cases, they put a lot of care and time and energy into thinking about and trying to manage how other people see them, and they have a lot of different ways of doing that.
One of their biggest concerns is not crossing the streams. So controlling audiences. So it’s not just a question of what you post, it’s a question of who sees the different things that you post. So we may see, for instance, that they use different platforms to communicate with different groups. Often they’ll use Facebook to communicate with family and they’ll use another social network, such as Instagram or Snapchat, to communicate with friends. Or they may distinguish between which groups of friends they communicate on different social networks, or they may create multiple accounts. So all of these things, they’re very subtle in some ways, and they can seem from the outside eye as though kids are not doing anything to manage their privacy, because the steps that they’re taking is only clear if you understand the strategy behind them.
But we do see also curation of what is actually shared. We know, again, from our own research, that there was a lot of pressure to post things that make you look good, whether that was posting things like what you were buying or what you were wearing, but also a real concern with avoiding criticism. So a number of the young people in our photo sharing study said that they wouldn’t ever post a photo with their face in it, that they would crop their face out or that they would cover their face in the photo, because they said anytime you post a picture of your face, you’re going to get criticism.
So they are definitely taking steps to manage their privacy in a lot of different ways. What they don’t necessarily understand because it’s a lot more abstract is the data privacy aspect of what they’re doing online. Our research shows that they don’t understand how social networks make money. They don’t understand the ways in which their personal information is valuable to social networks and to advertisers. But again, it’s not that they don’t care. Because we’ve found that when they’re made aware of it, once they understand the implications of these practices, they do care a lot and they want to take steps to manage it.
I would say you’ve described a very sophisticated teenager. By this sounds of it, one who makes some pretty deliberate choices about what they post where, on what platform, intended for whom, et cetera. And I guess I wanted to ask you, from your research results or from what you know, how skilled are teens in particular with using privacy controls, resetting the privacy default settings and taking the steps necessary to protect their information.
The most recent research that we have shows that they are doing that to some extent. That certainly they’re aware of privacy settings and privacy controls.
I think we definitely do still have some work to do in helping them use the technical privacy settings as an additional way of controlling privacy. And in particular, the settings that either limit data collection or limit targeted advertising. Not all online tools let you fully avoid data collection, but most let you mitigate it to some extent, and most will let you at the very least turn off ad targeting based on that. But that’s something, again, that we know kids know very little about and they don’t understand the implications about it. But when they do understand, they do care about it. So as with reputational privacy, so much of getting them to take the effort is helping them to understand the issue and getting them to care about it, and then immediately getting those tools into their hands so they know can do something about it.
Just pivoting a little bit to talk about screen time. We know that screen time has increased dramatically, particularly during the pandemic when kids, teens, all of us were locked down at home. As a member of the Canadian Pediatric Society Digital Health Task Force, I understand you participate in drafting recommendations for children’s screen time. So let me ask you, how much is too much screen time?
There isn’t an easy answer to that, and that was one of the big changes that we made. We do still have screen time recommendations for younger kids. So the target for kids age two and under is zero. That’s always a target. With older kids, we have a recommended limit of two hours. And one of the big questions we’ve had over the last year, of course, is, “Do you count school?” Because if you count school during remote schooling, then obviously, you blow right past that by lunchtime.
That brings us to how we address teenagers. Generally, our approach, which is that, again, it’s not so much that screen time is bad as that it takes away from other things. So with teenagers, the first question really is, “Is their screen use getting in the way of other important things in their lives?” Is screen use interfering with time spent with friends and family? And we know over the last two years, for many young people, digital media have been a lifeline for staying connected with friends and family. And even now, often they’re using digital devices as a supplement to socializing offline. It’s a way of making plans. It’s a way of catching up. So that’s not necessarily a bad thing. But if screen use is preventing kids from having that family time, that time with friends, then that’s obviously a bad thing.
If it’s cutting into sleep, and this is one of the areas besides sedentary time, this is one of the areas where we can point to the most direct impact. For the obvious reason that if you are using a digital device, you’re not sleeping. So it’s one of the reasons why we recommend not allowing digital devices in the bedroom. About four in 10 of the kids in our research that had smartphones said they would get up in the night to check them. So this is obviously not good for them, especially at an age where we know they’re already not getting enough sleep.
The other thing that we look at is looking at the quality of their screen use. So not just trying to minimize negative screen use, but thinking about what is positive screen use. Using screens in a more mindful way and encouraging screen uses that either are active, where you’re using the device but you’re getting up and moving around. So it could be an exergame like Ring Fit, or it could be a game that actually you go outside, like Pokemon Go. Uses that are creative, where you’re making something, whether you’re making something physical and you’re learning how to do it online, or whether you’re making something virtual, making music, coding, making animations, whatever. Uses that are educational, where you’re actually learning something. Or uses that are genuinely social, where you are genuinely interacting with other people and not just sort of mindlessly scrolling and liking and just letting things kind of wash over you.
So that mindful use is really what we want to encourage in youth, rather than counting minutes, counting hours, rather than setting screen time limits, particularly with teens. Because pretty soon, whether it’s while they’re still teens or whether it’s when they leave home, they’re going to have to learn to manage their own screen time. We have to help them develop the habits of mindful screen use of viewing digital devices as a tool that we use at particular times for particular reasons. We don’t take them out just because we’re bored. We have to be careful to model the same habits. We have to be careful to not be doing those things we’re telling them not to do.
We can also help to teach these skills more explicitly by articulating why we’re taking out a screen device. I’m going to take out my phone and I’m going to look at the weather because I need to know whether we can go out this afternoon or whether we need to plan something else. But being really explicit about that so that you are modeling that idea that it’s not an always on accessory, it’s something you use at a particular time for a particular reason.
It reminds me of when my kids were teenagers, young teenagers, we had a contract drafted and it was posted on the fridge, and those were the rules of the game. They knew it and we knew it. Most of the time, we stuck by it, but sometimes we needed a little urging and reminding.
We do actually have a sample contract that we drew up. And it’s important that it has things on both sides. It’s not just a list of rules, it is a contract, because that helps kids, especially teens, feel like they’re being consulted and that you’re putting something on the line too.
Our research has shown there’s a strong connection between having rules in the home about how kids use digital devices and how they actually behave. Because really, especially for teenagers, household rules, whether it’s a contract or not, they’re not about punishment, because teenagers are not worried about being punished. They’re about communicating the values that you want your kids to live by, online and off. So whether it’s talking about treating people with respect, whether it’s talking about respecting their privacy, whether it’s talking about not visiting websites that they think you might not approve of, or not buying things online without your approval, all of those things are reflections of the values that you want them to live by.
You talked about respect. I want to just focus in on that concept. I think you saw our kids’ activity book, and one of the exercises we encourage kids to play is really a self-reflection of what privacy means to them and what are the kinds of things they would not like to have others do to them and list those things. And then we ask them to reflect on them and say, “Well, now that you’ve thought about how it feels for you, are you willing to respect those same limits when it comes to others?”
So in a sense, we’re trying to tap into this concept of privacy empathy from a young age. And I know that you do a lot of work in this area and have developed this concept of digital ethics, particularly among teens. So I was wondering if you can talk to us about that and what does ethics and empathy mean among teens, and how do they develop this code of practice, whether written or unwritten, said or unsaid that sets out the rules of engagement between them.
Because the online world doesn’t necessarily feel like an ethical or a moral realm, because it can feel kind of unreal or abstract, we often do have to help young people consciously remember or be consciously aware of it as an ethical space. In the same way that we need to remind them to make a conscious effort to feel empathy.
So when it comes to privacy, there definitely is a process that happens as they enter into their teens, where they become more conscious of the ethical questions around sharing other people’s content. And it often does come in the way that that activity describes it, where they suffer some kind of privacy harm and it makes them aware, “I can do this to other people. This isn’t fun.”
One of the research reports that we did a few years ago focused specifically on young people’s decisions around photo sharing, both sharing their own photos and sharing other people’s photos. What we found was that on the one hand, they did have very developed feelings and ideas around privacy ethics. So in fact, they felt that you do have a right to determine what happens to a photo that you’re in, even if you’re not the only person in the photo. That everyone in a photo has, to a certain extent, an ethical ownership stake in it. And they felt very strongly about that.
But at the same time, they didn’t often actually get consent before sharing a photo of someone. What they did was kind of a thought experiment. So they would imagine asking what the other person would say based on the context, and then they’d make their decision based on that. So even though they had this idea of privacy ethics, they weren’t really going to the point of seeking consent. And we definitely did hear about some cases where people had made bad choices as a result of that, where for whatever reason, something that seemed like a public context to the person doing the sharing was not seen in the same way by everybody in the photo.
So there are definitely blind spots. And of course, the biggest blind spot that we found, and this in fact inspired a whole other study, was around sexts. In the cases of photos that did have a genuine potential to do harm, there was this moral blind spot where it was seen as though the people who had sent the sexts had given up that right to consent, even the right to have someone go through that imaginary process.
So we did a whole other study on that and we found that there were two things that correlated really strongly to being willing to share sexts or having shared a sext without the sender’s consent. The first was that moral blind spot, what in psychology is called moral disengagement, which is the psychological mechanism that allows us to do things that we know are wrong, what you might call an excuse. And in fact, in the lesson that’s built around it, we call them sneaky excuses, to use more teen-friendly language. But agreeing with these ideas, agreeing with the idea, for instance, that it’s the person’s own fault if a sext they share gets shared or publicly. The youth who believed in these were five times more likely to have shared a sext. But the other thing that had a strong correlation was believing in traditional gender stereotypes, that those youth who did believe strongly in traditional gender stereotypes were also five times more likely to have shared a sext than those who scored low on that scale.
So it shows how complex the issue of privacy ethics, digital ethics as well, but privacy ethics in particular, how complex it is, how we can address it in a general way by teaching things like empathy, encouraging kids to openly seek consent before sharing a photo. But we also have to be aware of those blind spots, and we have to address them directly, either through directly addressing moral disengagement as we do in the lesson series called There’s No Excuse, or by addressing gender stereotyping, which of course, we do through some of our more traditional media literacy lessons.
So in terms of maybe more specific tips, practical tips you have developed both for teens and for parents and maybe even for educators, could you share some of those with us?
For parents, one of the most important things is to model the idea of getting consent. So it’s a really good idea to be in the habit of asking your kids before you share photos of them. You can do this starting from very early on, really as early on as they’re able to understand the question. When you take a photo and it’s an adorable photo and you want to share it, you ask, “Is it okay?” So if they’re not comfortable with it, don’t post it. That really sends a very strong signal, that you get consent, that you think about consent, and that people have a right to be considered.
More broadly, it is important, of course, for parents to be aware of what their kids are doing online, and particularly, the social networks that they’re using. We already talked about the idea of a contract or household rules. But talking to your kids about why they want to use a social network. Understanding what it is they want to get out of it. And then from there, developing a strategy, which depending on how old they are and what it is they want to do with it, it could mean starting off with a joint account.
Understanding the difference between social networks that are public by default and private by default is really important and helping your kids understand that. We have a workshop for parents called The Parent Network that addresses the different questions you should ask about a new social network, because, of course, new ones are coming up all the time. Having a browser plugin when you’re using a desktop computer, or something like Privacy Badger that limits data collection can be as effective as changing your settings. But making sure that you have addressed what settings are available within an app.
And generally, of course, having an ongoing conversation is really the most important thing so that you know as much about your child’s media and digital life as you know about their school life and the time they spend with their friends. And making sure that your kids know that they can come to you if they ever have a problem, and making sure they know that you’re not going to freak out, that you’re going to support them. Doesn’t mean you’re always necessarily going to be on their side, because sometimes our kids are in the wrong, but you can be supportive without necessarily siding with them. I think when that happens fairly often, our kids know that they were in the wrong.
As you know and as I mentioned earlier, our office adopted children and youth in a digital world as one of our key strategic priorities to focus our work over the next four years. And our goal in this area really is to champion the access and privacy rights of Ontario’s children and youth by promoting digital literacy and the expansion of their digital rights. So let me ask you as a final question for someone who’s been working with children and youth for decades now, what would be your advice to our office? What challenges do you see for us ahead? And what can we do, what contribution can we make to advance our goal?
I think a lot of the challenge is going to continue to be around awareness, making people understand the significance of privacy and the importance of privacy. I think as more and more of our lives, as I say, becomes mediatized and digitized, being on guard for surveillance creep or data collection creep. The ways that data collection and surveillance happens to us in more and more spaces. And often happens in ways that are initially framed as being temporary and then gradually become permanent. So looking, for instance, at remote schooling and how that led, understandably, to a lot of people or a lot of students in particular being exposed to privacy risks that they weren’t before as an emergency measure. But of course, it’s very difficult to unring a bell. So I can say from our own perspective, keeping track of all of the different contexts in which we have to be conscious of privacy risks.
And I guess the last thing that is fighting against the feeling that there’s nothing that we can do. Fighting against the feeling of hopelessness and actively empowering everyone, but youth in particular, to take control of their own privacy and helping them to know how to do that and why it’s important to do that.
Wonderful. Great advice. Thank you, Matthew, for joining us on this episode of Info Matters. And maybe we can have you as a return guest sometime.
I’d love to.
And have you repeat your answers in a pirate voice. That would be wonderful.
So when we think about how to talk to our teenagers about concepts like privacy and online ethics, we might not be aware of some of the false assumptions we’re making. Of course, the biggest mistake we can make is simply assuming that because our teenagers are experiencing the world differently than we did, that they don’t care about privacy. But that’s not true. Far from it.
The information you’ve shared with us here today has really helped dispel that myth, and I want to thank you for that. Who knows, it may even help to spark some frank discussions around the dinner table tonight.
For those of you who want to learn more about Matthew Johnson’s work, please visit mediasmarts.ca. For those of you who want to learn more about concepts and tools you can use to start conversations about privacy with kids, even from a very young age, I encourage you to listen to our earlier episode on teaching kids about privacy.
You can also visit our website at ipc.on.ca for information about a variety of access and privacy resources, including our new kids’ activity book. Or you can always call or email our office for assistance and general information about Ontario’s access and privacy laws. That’s what we’re here for.
Well, that’s it for this episode, folks. Thank you so much for tuning in, and until next time.
I’m Patricia Kosseim, Ontario’s information and privacy commissioner. This has been Info Matters. If you enjoyed the podcast, leave us a rating or review. If there’s an access or privacy topic you’d like us to explore on a future episode, we’d love to hear from you. Send us a tweet @IPCinfoprivacy, or email us at firstname.lastname@example.org. Thanks for listening, and please join us again for more conversations about people, privacy, and access to information. If it matters to you, it matters to me.
Info Matters is a podcast about people, privacy, and access to information hosted by Patricia Kosseim, Information and Privacy Commissioner of Ontario. We dive into conversations with people from all walks of life and hear stories about the access and privacy issues that matter most to them.
If you enjoyed the podcast, leave us a rating or a review.
This post is also available in: French