Privacy and Teenagers

In the 2014 book “It’s Complicated: The Social Lives of Networked Teens”, author danah boyd presents a decade of research of the role of the internet and social media in the lives of teenagers. This book goes beyond the common stereotypes of teenagers always being on their phones, unable to interact face to face, and through interviewing hundreds of teens in the United States across racial, class and geographic divides, creates a nuanced picture of how teens use and view social media. Of particular interest is a chapter on privacy. This chapter examines why teens share personal details on public forums, the conscious privacy decisions they are making in the process, and who they want privacy from.

In short, boyd asserts that teenagers are aware that postings on social media such as Facebook are accessible to the general public, but they view that as a standard part of life. They are more concerned about privacy from parents and teachers than privacy from corporations, and data analytics. By posting in vague ways that require deep understanding of social context or inside jokes, teens communicate on public forums in ways that are meaningful to their social network while appearing as meaningless noise to outsiders.

This work suggests that teens are a unique subgroup of internet users, with a unique understanding of privacy, and unique concerns. These generational differences should inform how privacy policies are presented, what they contain, and how regulations are created.

Privacy Regulations for Teenagers

In the State of California, online data use is governed by CalOPPA, the California version of the Online Privacy Protection Act. Because most websites in the US have users in CA, CalOPPA has become the national standard.There is a specific subsection of this act referred to as the “Online Eraser” rule. This requires websites that have users between the ages of 13 and 17 “provide a mechanism for minors to remove the content or information that they have posted(1)”. This law acknowledged that the teenage years are a special time, and makes additional leeway for decisions made during this time. Teens are acknowledges as a subgroup deserving of additional privacy protections.

Societal Pressure to Clarify Privacy Policies and Increase Understanding

The is an increasing pressure on tech companies to clarify privacy policies, and ensure that users understand what they are consenting to, rather than clicking “I agree” to a long unintelligible document full of legal jargon. In 2011, Facebook was investigated by the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) on charges “that it deceived consumers by telling them they could keep their information on Facebook private, and then repeatedly allowing it to be shared and made public.(2)” In the resulting settlement, Facebook overhauled its privacy and data use policy to create an easier to understand format, is subject to bi-annual third-party audits. In light of the recent scandal with Cambridge Analytica, as of March 26th, 2018 the FTC has reopened the investigation into Facebook’s privacy practices(3).

Duty of Companies to Explain Privacy in Ways that Match Teens Worldview

Many current privacy concerns center around the use of data for unintended purposes. This includes the scrapping of Linkedin data to tell a current employer that someone is looking for a new job, such as the topic of a lawsuit between LinkedIn and HiQ labs(4), or Cambridge Analytica scraping Facebook data to create psychological profiles of voters to target personalized political advertisements in the 2016 Brexit vote and the US Presidential election(5).

It would be logical to expect that as a result of these recent high profile stories, internet users will be analyzing privacy policies with a fresh eye towards data use by third parties. In the fallout of these scandals, many companies that rewrite or reformat privacy policies will be looking to assuage these fears and provide clear information where users have the option to consent before their data is shared, or used by outside analytic firms.  

However, in this moment of increased scrutiny, it is important to look at the data privacy expectations and understanding of all subgroups. Rewritten privacy policies should not assume that teens have the same privacy priorities and understanding as adults. There is a need for clear information on what sharing with a third party would mean, as well as why that could be beneficial or dangerous, as well as clear information on privacy from specific people that the teens crave.