Canada: Coalface of education privatisation outlined at international seminar

Text by: Education International

The growing privatisation of public education in Canada – and globally – is of increasing concern to experts at an international seminar in Ottawa.

The privatisation and commercialisation in and of public education, both nationally and internationally, was the focus of the first day of the Canadian Forum on Public Education, hosted by the Canadian Teachers’ Federation (CTF) on 10-11 July in Ottawa, Canada. The event was attended by 100 teacher leaders from across Canada.

CTF President Heather Smith outlined the Canadian perspective while David Edwards, Deputy General Secretary of Education International, highlighted the importance of galvanising teacher unions’ efforts to counter the corporate quest for profits in the education sector.

EI’s Global Response Project Director, Angelo Gavrielatos, described how edu-businesses, including Pearson, use standardised tests as a point of entry to the education sector.

Continue Reading (Education International):

Canada @ 150 – Eight big ideas to strengthen public education

By Bernie Froese-Germain

The genesis of public education in Canada and the birth of the Canadian federation have some important commonalities. They are both approximately the same age – public education has its origins in the latter half of the 19th century. More importantly, they are both works in progress, continually evolving to meet new needs and demands, one supporting and strengthening the other.

On the role that public education plays in a democratic society, philosopher and essayist John Ralston Saul eloquently stated that:

Any weakening of universal public education can only be a weakening of the long-standing essential role universal public education plays in making us a civilized democracy.

In a similar vein, American philosopher and educational reformer John Dewey observed a century ago that:

It is no accident that all democracies have put a high estimate upon education; that schooling has been their first care and enduring charge. Only through education can equality of opportunity be anything more than a phrase. Accidental inequalities of birth, wealth, and learning are always tending to restrict the opportunities of some as compared with those of others. Only free and continued education can counteract those forces which are always at work to restore, in however changed a form, feudal oligarchy. Democracy has to be born anew every generation, and education is its midwife.

The historic milestone of Canada’s 150th anniversary is an appropriate time to reflect on the future of public education: what kind of public education system do we need to support the vision of an inclusive, equitable, sustainable, prosperous Canada?

No one could argue that public education doesn’t play a central role in creating our future society – unfortunately, the typical discourse around educational innovation and change too often equates with standardized, market-driven reforms which undermine equity. Teachers’ organizations attempt to provide an important counter-narrative to this flawed mindset.

So, with that in mind, here are some “big” ideas (in no particular order) to strengthen public education in Canada.

  1. Education for reconciliation – In the wake of the release of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s final report and its Calls to Action, CTF firmly believes education is vitally important to the healing and reconciliation process and is committed to working together with Indigenous organizations and our other educational partners toward this end.
  2. The teacher voice – Classroom teachers, the experts on teaching and learning, are best positioned to know what students require to be successful in the broadest sense of the term. As such, it is vitally important to involve and incorporate the teaching profession’s views on educational change. Indeed, Jelmer Evers and René Kneyber, editors of Flip the System: Changing Education From the Ground Up, published last year by Education International (EI), argue that teachers can and should take the lead on education reform.
  3. Support for collaborative professionalism – The importance of fostering a system culture of collaborative professionalism to improve teaching and learning is one of the main recommendations of a recent study on the state of professional learning in Canada. According to Andy Hargreaves, “professional learning and development (PLD) is most effective when it takes place within a culture of collaborative professionalism where teachers work and plan together, take shared responsibility for all students’ learning in each other’s classes and schools, and undertake inquiry in teams to solve problems in their schools”.
  4. Social and economic conditions matter – Socio-economic factors (such as child poverty and mental illness) can have an impact on student learning and educational outcomes. Improving the broader social and economic conditions of children and their families will ultimately benefit learning and the overall quality of public education.
  5. Global Education Reform Movement (GERM) – We need to deepen our awareness and understanding of global education reform and how these changes are impacting our schools and education systems. Features of GERM include school choice (charter schools, voucher programs, etc.), increased competition between schools, test-based accountability, and the narrowing of curriculum. To take one example, the growth of international benchmark testing such as the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development’s (OECD’s) PISA is influencing educational policy and practice in ways that can be detrimental to the goals of public education.
  6. Achieving excellence through equity – The Alberta Teachers’ Association’s (ATA’s) blueprint for educational development in Alberta, A Great School for All (PDF – 1.3 MB), takes a systematic holistic approach to educational change with equity as its foundation. The blueprint contains 12 dimensions of change which “are interconnected and recognize that schools are complex living communities that exist within an ecology bounded by culture, community, socio-economic realities, political environments and global trends and pressures.”
  7. Increase support for diversity – Given the incredible diversity of classrooms and schools – and the richness and strength that lies therein – providing the necessary supports and services for students with special needs including students with mental health problems is absolutely critical.
  8. Stem the growing tide of privatization in/of public education – Over the past two years, CTF has been actively involved in the Global Response campaign, an international effort – coordinated by EI and endorsed at the EI World Congress in Ottawa in 2015 – opposed to the privatization and commercialization of public education. The campaign has two complementary pillars:
    • Advocate for governments to do what they’re supposed to do – act in the interest of the public good with adequate funding, resources and policy to ensure quality inclusive public education.
    • Endeavour to interrupt and stop “edu-businesses” such as Pearson and Bridge International Academies from profiting at the expense of access for all to free quality publicly funded public education.

    As part of the Global Response campaign, the recently launched We The Educators initiative, a series of animated short videos supported by a detailed literature review, is intended to catalyze new conversations about the relationship between educational technology and the privatization, standardization, datafication, and (de)personalization of education.

While not exhaustive by any means, this list does touch on some core issues for the teaching profession in its efforts to ensure the provision of quality public education for all – for the next 150 years and beyond.

*This article was first published in the June 2017 issue of PerspectivesCTF’s Web magazine.

Canada @ 150 – Huit grandes idées pour renforcer l’éducation publique

Par Bernie Froese-Germain

L’éducation publique au Canada et la confédération canadienne ont d’importants points communs. D’abord, elles ont environ le même âge; l’origine de l’éducation publique remonte à la seconde moitié du XIXe siècle. Mais surtout, elles sont toutes deux en évolution. Elles changent constamment pour répondre à de nouveaux besoins et à de nouvelles exigences, l’une à l’appui de l’autre, se renforçant mutuellement.

Le philosophe et essayiste John Ralston Saul a dit ceci à propos du rôle que joue l’éducation publique dans une société démocratique :

[Traduction libre]
« Toute atteinte à l’universalité de l’éducation publique ne peut que se traduire par un affaiblissement du rôle essentiel qu’a toujours joué l’éducation publique universelle dans la quête d’une démocratie civilisée. »

Dans la même veine, le philosophe et réformateur de l’éducation américain John Dewey faisait déjà observer, il y a une centaine d’années, que

[Traduction libre]
ce n’est pas un hasard si toutes les démocraties ont donné une grande importance à l’éducation, si l’éducation a été leur première préoccupation et leur responsabilité permanente. Seule l’éducation permet à l’égalité des chances d’être autre chose que des mots. Les inégalités accidentelles associées à la naissance, à la richesse et à l’apprentissage ont toujours tendance à restreindre les chances de certains par rapport à d’autres. Seule une éducation libre et continue peut contrer ces forces, qui sont toujours là pour restaurer, dans quelque nouvelle forme que ce soit, l’oligarchie féodale. La démocratie doit naître de nouveau à chaque génération et l’éducation est sa sage-femme.

Le jalon historique que constitue le 150e anniversaire du Canada est pour nous une bonne occasion de réfléchir à l’avenir de l’éducation publique : de quel genre de système d’éducation publique avons-nous besoin pour appuyer l’idée d’un Canada inclusif, équitable, durable et prospère?

Personne ne pourrait soutenir que l’éducation publique ne joue pas un rôle central dans l’avenir de la société. Malheureusement, le discours typique autour de l’innovation et du changement en éducation se limite trop souvent aux réformes standardisées, axées sur le marché, qui minent l’équité. Les organisations de l’enseignement tentent de contrer ce discours erroné.

C’est dans cet esprit que nous vous présentons ici huit « grandes idées » (sans ordre particulier) pour renforcer l’éducation au Canada.

  1. L’éducation au service de la réconciliation : À la suite de la publication du rapport final de la Commission de vérité et réconciliation et de ses appels à l’action, la FCE s’est dite fermement convaincue que l’éducation est d’une importance fondamentale pour le processus de guérison et de réconciliation. Elle est déterminée à travailler en collaboration avec les organisations autochtones et ses autres partenaires du milieu de l’éducation pour faciliter ce processus.
  2. La voix du personnel enseignant : Les spécialistes de l’enseignement et de l’apprentissage que sont les enseignantes et enseignants sont les mieux placés pour savoir de quoi les élèves ont besoin pour réussir, au sens le plus large du terme. Il est donc extrêmement important de tenir compte des points de vue de la profession enseignante sur le changement en éducation. À ce sujet, Jelmer Evers et René Kneyber, éditeurs du livre Flip the System: Changing Education From the Ground Up, publié l’an dernier par l’Internationale de l’Éducation (IE), soutiennent que les enseignantes et enseignants sont capables de prendre la tête de la réforme de l’éducation et qu’ils devraient le faire. (en anglais seulement)
  3. L’appui au professionnalisme collaboratif : Parmi les principales recommandations d’une récente étude sur l’état de l’apprentissage professionnel au Canada, il était suggéré de favoriser une culture systémique de professionnalisme collaboratif pour améliorer l’enseignement et l’apprentissage. D’après Andy Hargreaves, l’apprentissage et le perfectionnement professionnels sont utiles quand ils se font dans une « culture de professionnalisme collaboratif » où les membres du personnel enseignant travaillent et établissent leur planification ensemble, partagent la responsabilité de l’apprentissage des élèves qu’ils ou elles soient ou non dans leurs classes ou leurs écoles, et explorent des questions en équipes afin de trouver des solutions aux problèmes de leurs écoles. (en anglais seulement)
  4. Les conditions socioéconomiques, ça compte  : Les facteurs socioéconomiques (comme la pauvreté des enfants et la maladie mentale) peuvent avoir des répercussions sur l’apprentissage des élèves et les résultats de l’éducation. Améliorer les conditions socioéconomiques générales des enfants et de leurs familles améliorera au bout du compte l’apprentissage et la qualité de l’éducation en général.
  5. Mouvement mondial de réforme de l’éducation : Nous devons mieux comprendre le mouvement mondial de réforme de l’éducation et ses répercussions sur nos écoles et nos systèmes d’éducation. Parmi les caractéristiques de ce mouvement, mentionnons le choix de l’école (écoles à charte, programmes de bons d’études, etc.), la concurrence accrue entre les écoles, la responsabilisation par les tests et le rétrécissement du curriculum. Par exemple, les tests comparatifs internationaux, de plus en plus nombreux, comme le Programme international pour le suivi des acquis des élèves (PISA) de l’Organisation de coopération et de développement économiques (OCDE), influencent la politique de l’éducation et les pratiques dans ce domaine d’une manière qui peut nuire à l’atteinte des buts de l’éducation publique.
  6. Arriver à l’excellence par l’équité : Le projet de développement de l’éducation de l’Alberta Teachers’ Association, intitulé A Great School for All (PDF – 1,3 Mo), privilégie une approche systématique et holistique du changement en éducation qui repose sur l’équité. Ce projet met en évidence 12 dimensions du changement interreliées qui reconnaissent que les écoles sont des communautés vivantes et complexes, faisant partie d’un écosystème délimité par les réalités culturelles, communautaires et socioéconomiques, les contextes politiques ainsi que les tendances et les pressions mondiales.
  7. Renforcer le soutien à la diversité : Étant donné la très grande diversité des classes et des écoles — et la richesse et la force que cette diversité apporte —, il est absolument essentiel d’offrir aux élèves ayant des besoins particuliers, dont des besoins liés à la santé mentale, le soutien et les services dont ils ont besoin.
  8. Stopper la vague grandissante de la privatisation de l’éducation : Depuis deux ans, la FCE contribue activement au Mouvement mondial de réponse, un effort international coordonné par l’IE qui a reçu l’aval du Congrès mondial de l’IE, à Ottawa, en 2015. Ce mouvement a pour but de contrer la privatisation et la commercialisation de l’éducation publique. Il s’articule autour de deux axes d’intervention complémentaires :
    • L’action politique auprès des gouvernements pour qu’ils fassent ce qu’ils sont censés faire : agir dans l’intérêt du bien public en accordant suffisamment de fonds et de ressources, et en adoptant les politiques appropriées pour assurer une éducation publique inclusive et de qualité;
    • L’action pour empêcher que des entreprises éducatives comme Pearson et Bridge International Academies ne tirent profit de l’éducation aux dépens de l’accès universel à une éducation de qualité, financée par l’État et gratuite.

    Dans le cadre du Mouvement mondial de réponse, nous avons récemment lancé le projet We The Educators (Nous, gens de l’éducation!), qui consiste en une série de courts métrages d’animation appuyés par une revue de la littérature détaillée. Ce projet a pour but de susciter de nouvelles discussions sur le lien entre la technologie éducationnelle et la privatisation, la standardisation, la datafication (ou mise en données) et la (dé)professionnalisation de l’éducation.

Loin d’être exhaustive, cette liste propose des idées centrales dont la profession enseignante pourra s’inspirer dans le cadre de ses efforts pour offrir une éducation publique de qualité à tous et à toutes au cours des 150 prochaines années et au-delà.

*Le présent article a initialement été publié dans le numéro de juin 2016 de la revue Perspectives, le magazine Web de la FCE.

Canadian Teachers’ Federation applauds repeal of anti-labour legislation

June 15, 2017

Ottawa – The Canadian Teachers’ Federation (CTF) is celebrating the adoption of Bill C-4, the legislation that repeals the previous Conservative government’s Bill C‑377 introduced in 2012 and Bill C‑525 adopted in 2014.

“We applaud the Liberal government for living up to its electoral promise by repealing these anti-labour and undemocratic laws,” says CTF President Heather Smith. “Teacher organizations were among the many labour groups targeted by Bill C-377 which had been pushed quickly through the House of Commons with little debate and no consultation with labour. These measures triggered the CTF “Hear my voice” advocacy campaign with the goal of strengthening the teacher voice in labour rights,” Smith adds.

The Federation also rallied to support the Canadian Labour Congress campaign and joined the chorus of opposition expressed by police associations, the federal privacy commissioner, the Canadian Bar Association and seven provinces who called C‑377 unconstitutional and argued it would cost millions for the federal government to enforce.

“This is wonderful news for democracy and human rights,” concludes Smith.

Founded in 1920, CTF is a national alliance of provincial and territorial Member organizations that represent over 232,000 teachers across Canada. CTF is also an affiliate of the 32-million member Education International. @CanTeachersFed


Media contact:

Francine Filion, Director of Communications, 613-688-4314

La Fédération canadienne des enseignantes et des enseignants applaudit à l’abrogation de projets de loi antisyndicaux

Le 15 juin 2017

Ottawa – La Fédération canadienne des enseignantes et des enseignants (FCE) célèbre l’adoption du projet de loi C‑4, qui abroge deux projets de loi de l’ancien gouvernement conservateur, le C‑377, présenté en 2012, et le C‑525, adopté en 2014.

« Nous félicitons le gouvernement libéral de tenir sa promesse électorale en abrogeant ces lois antisyndicales et antidémocratiques, indique la présidente de la FCE Heather Smith. Les organisations de l’enseignement faisaient partie des nombreux groupes syndicaux ciblés par le projet de loi C‑377, qui a été adopté rapidement par la Chambre des communes sans trop de débat et sans aucune consultation avec les syndicats. Ces mesures ont provoqué le déclenchement de la campagne d’action politique « Écoutez ma voix » de la FCE, dont l’objectif était de renforcer la voix du personnel enseignant dans le dossier des droits des travailleurs et travailleuses », ajoute la présidente.

La Fédération a aussi appuyé la campagne du Congrès du travail du Canada et s’est jointe au concert d’opposition de la part des associations de policiers et policières, du Commissariat à la protection de la vie privée du Canada, de l’Association du Barreau canadien et de sept provinces, qui ont qualifié le projet de loi C‑377 d’inconstitutionnel et affirmé que son application coûterait des millions de dollars à l’administration fédérale.

« C’est une excellente nouvelle pour la démocratie et les droits de la personne », conclut Heather Smith.

Fondée en 1920, la FCE est une alliance nationale d’organisations provinciales et territoriales qui représentent plus de 232 000 enseignantes et enseignants au Canada. La FCE est également affiliée à l’Internationale de l’Éducation, laquelle compte 32 millions de membres. @EnseigneCanada


Contact avec les médias :

Francine Filion, directrice des Communications, 613-688-4314

A union collaboration to promote

For several years, the Syndicat national des enseignants du secondaire et du supérieur (SNESS) and the Syndicat national des enseignants africains du Burkina (SNEA-B) have been collaborating with the Canadian Teachers’ Federation (CTF). This partnership between Burkina Faso and Canada offers teachers from both countries a wonderful opportunity to learn, share their knowledge, discuss, and renew their commitment to their profession and respective unions.

CTF is committed to defending public education, promoting the teaching profession, and providing support to Member organizations, affiliate members of Education International, and teachers across Canada. The Federation addresses social issues that have an impact on the health and well-being of children and youth in Canada and abroad.

Together, SNESS, SNEA-B and CTF have developed activities for 2017-18 for teachers in Burkina Faso with one common goal: to improve education for all — girls, boys, teachers, and union members. These activities are based on capacity building and gender equality.

CTF is proud to partner with SNESS and SNEA-B.

Claudia Guidolin
Consultant for CTF

Une collaboration syndicale à promouvoir

Depuis plusieurs années, le Syndicat national des enseignants du secondaire et du supérieur (SNESS) et le Syndicat national des enseignants africains du Burkina (SNEA-B) entretiennent une collaboration avec la Fédération canadienne des enseignantes et des enseignants (FCE). Ce partenariat entre le Burkina Faso et le Canada constitue une occasion incroyable pour les enseignantes et les enseignants des deux pays d’apprendre, de partager leurs connaissances, d’échanger et de renouveler leur engagement envers leur profession et leur syndicat respectif.

La FCE s’emploie notamment à défendre l’éducation publique, à promouvoir la profession enseignante et à fournir un appui aux organisations Membres et aux membres affiliés à l’Internationale de l’Éducation ainsi qu’au corps enseignant des quatre coins du pays. Elle s’attaque aux questions sociales qui influent sur la santé et le bien-être des enfants et des jeunes au Canada et à l’étranger.

À cet effet, le SNESS, le SNEA-B et la FCE ont élaboré des activités pour 2017-2018 pour les enseignantes et les enseignants du Burkina Faso dans un même but : améliorer l’éducation pour toutes et tous — filles, garçons, enseignantes, enseignants, membres des syndicats. Ces activités reposent sur le renforcement des capacités et l’égalité entre les sexes.

La FCE est fière d’être partie prenante de cette collaboration avec le SNESS et le SNEA-B.

Claudia Guidolin
Consultante auprès de la FCE

We The Educators — A new conversation about the future of public education

Education systems around the world are now witness to a variety of educational changes and improvements, numerous social and economic disruptions, and the onset of rapid technological advances that were unimaginable in the past. Within this tsunami of change, innovative teaching and learning practices that employ emerging technologies are sweeping into schools and classrooms with the broader goal of transforming student learning.

While technologies present education systems with both significant opportunities and challenges, some of the most profound developments are related to standardisation, personalisation, privatisation, and the datafication of learning.

To this end, Education International (EI), the Canadian Teachers’ Federation (CTF) and the Alberta Teachers’ Association (ATA) identified a need to explore the interdisciplinary research underpinning technology-driven datafication and its effects on teaching and learning around the world.

We the Educators - Educational Technology and the Personalisation, Standardisation, Privatisation and Datafication of EducationThis literature review (PDF – 601 KB) attempts to provide a balanced view of the interdisciplinary concepts under investigation in order to inform an analysis of the converging fields of educational technology and datafication. It is part of a larger project, entitled “We the Educators” (, which brings the concepts explored in this research to life through video and animation in multiple languages.

It is hoped that this project will stimulate a rich public dialogue—and greater professional scrutiny—around the relationship between the datafication of education systems and the (de)personalization, privatization and standardization of student learning. We invite colleagues and advocates for quality public education worldwide to draw on this research and to use the videos to continue the conversations.

This project is the result of a global collaborative effort of many talented people including Graham Brown-Martin and teams from EI (Angelo Gavrielatos, Nikola Wachter and Mar Candela), the ATA (Dr Philip McRae, Dr Lindsay Yakimyshyn and Dr J-C Couture) and the Canadian Teachers’ Federation (Cassandra Hallett, Bernie Froese-Germain). The collective attention, analysis, support and imagination provided by all of these individuals has brought to life a project with the intention to inform and help to (re)shape the future of teaching and learning.

All of the partners in this project will continue to research and advocate for the conditions of professional practice required to create teaching and learning environments that advance the goal of strong publicly-funded public education systems: to educate all children and youth well.

Please follow, like and connect to these platforms and help us spread this conversation.


We The Educators  – Une nouvelle conversation sur l’avenir de l’éducation publique

Les systèmes d’éducation du monde entier sont aujourd’hui témoins de toutes sortes de changements et d’améliorations, de multiples bouleversements sociaux et économiques, et d’innovations technologiques rapides qui étaient inimaginables il n’y a pas si longtemps. Au milieu de ce tsunami de changements, des pratiques d’enseignement et d’apprentissage novatrices qui font usage des nouvelles technologies déferlent sur les écoles et les salles de classe avec le vaste objectif de transformer l’apprentissage des élèves.

Si les technologies présentent aux systèmes d’éducation à la fois des possibilités et des défis énormes, certains des plus grands bouleversements sont liés à la standardisation, à la personnalisation, à la privatisation et à la mise en données (datafication en anglais) de l’apprentissage.

Voilà pourquoi l’Internationale de l’Éducation (IE), la Fédération canadienne des enseignantes et des enseignants (FCE) et l’Alberta Teachers’ Association (ATA) ont senti le besoin d’explorer la recherche interdisciplinaire que suscitent la technologie éducationnelle et la mise en données, et leurs effets sur l’enseignement et l’apprentissage dans le monde.

wetheeducators-revue-de-la-litteratureLa présente revue de la littérature (PDF – 610 Ko) tente de brosser un portrait équilibré de divers concepts interdisciplinaires afin de guider l’analyse des domaines convergents que sont la technologie éducationnelle et la mise en données. Elle s’inscrit dans un projet plus vaste intitulé « Nous, gens de l’éducation! » (, qui présente les concepts étudiés ici de manière plus concrète à l’aide de vidéos et d’animations produites dans plusieurs langues.

Nous espérons que ce projet suscitera un débat public riche sur la relation entre la mise en données des systèmes d’éducation et la (dé)personnalisation, la privatisation et la standardisation de l’apprentissage des élèves, et qu’il encouragera un examen professionnel plus rigoureux de cette relation. Nous invitons nos collègues et les personnes qui militent en faveur d’une éducation publique de qualité aux quatre coins du monde à se servir de cette recherche et des vidéos afin de poursuivre le dialogue.

Ce projet est le résultat d’un exercice de collaboration international mené par un grand nombre de personnes aussi talentueuses les unes que les autres, dont Graham Brown-Martin et les équipes de l’IE (Angelo Gavrielatos, Nikola Wachter et Mar Candela), Cassandra Hallett et Bernie Froese-Germain (de la FCE), ainsi que Philip McRae, Ph. D., Lindsay Yakimyshyn, Ph. D., et J-C Couture, Ph. D. (de l’ATA). L’attention, l’analyse, le soutien et l’imagination de chacune de ces personnes ont donné lieu à un projet qui a pour but d’informer et de (re)façonner l’avenir de l’enseignement et de l’apprentissage.

Tous les partenaires du projet continueront d’étudier et de défendre les conditions d’exercice nécessaires à la création de milieux d’enseignement et d’apprentissage qui permettront aux systèmes solides d’éducation publique, financée par l’État, d’atteindre leur objectif : bien instruire tous les enfants et tous les jeunes sans exception.

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How Do Canadian Teens Make Decisions When Sharing Photos?

By MediaSmarts

To Share or Not to Share: How Teens Make Privacy Decisions about Photos on Social Media

Building on MediaSmarts’ findings on youth and privacy from our Young Canadians in a Wired World research, our new qualitative study, To Share or Not to Share: How Teens Make Privacy Decisions about Photos on Social Media (PDF – 1.1 MB) examines the reasoning that teens apply when sharing photos online.

Knowing how young people understand their information rights is key to digital literacy education. Because the regulatory model that protects young people’s online privacy assumes that they will choose not to post anything that they want kept private, privacy education initiatives typically focus on telling young people not to post personal information online. However, our Young Canadians in a Wired World research suggests that young people do not define privacy as non-disclosure, but instead seek to negotiate an appropriate level of privacy from peers and family members through a set of social norms that govern who sees what. Given this difference, we undertook this study to learn more about how teens perceive and approach privacy online so we can develop digital literacy programs that reflect their perceptions and are responsive to their needs.

For this research we interviewed 18 Canadian youth between the ages 13 and 16 to find out if and how their decisions to post photos are rooted in a desire to manage their reputation, and whether or not they actively consent to the collection and use of their personal information by the corporations that own the photo-sharing platforms that they use. We also mapped their knowledge about data protection principles and asked about any experiences they’d had interacting with corporations to exercise their rights under existing fair information practices, such as being able to access and delete personal information.

Performing for the audience

Everybody says that social media is connect with friends and whatnot, and to a certain extent, sure. But, when everybody goes on it, I feel like they’re always thinking the same thing: gotta look good. (Margaret, female, 15)

The most common motivation the teens gave for sharing photos online was to build and maintain a consciously crafted image. They often spoke of being aware that the audiences they reached through different apps would judge them, and of the need to choose and, in some cases, edit their photos to fit into what was acceptable and desirable on each platform: “People will judge you… Eight hundred people would see that ugly photo of you and they would probably judge you.” (Nico, male, 13)

The teens we interviewed almost exclusively use Instagram and Snapchat for sharing photos, and what makes a “good photo” depends in part on the app they use: for example, photos on Instagram are expected to look “professional” and also fit into a consistent “theme” or “look” for the account, which might be based on a particular topic or colour palette. While photos on Snapchat are expected to look fun and spontaneous, they are still carefully crafted to create that effect.

You want to post to impress people, and with Instagram, you don’t even think about your own self, you can’t just think, oh, what will people think, will they like this photo? You kind of stop thinking about your own needs. (Pavlina, female, 14)

Contrary to the popular conception of “selfies” as being the standard social media photo, these actually made up fewer than one in ten of the photos that were shared: “I feel like there’s just something weird and embarrassing about like going to your room to take some selfies.” (Margaret, female, 15) Instead, these teens are most likely to share photos of things like landscapes, consumer goods, and sunsets than those that had people in them. This preference for “safe” photos also leads many of them to carefully avoid any possibly controversial topics: “Politics, religion, sexuality, race – those are the things that I won’t do on social media.” (Suyin, female, 15)

Controlling audiences

As opposed to simply ‘not posting’, most of these teens’ efforts are aimed at controlling who sees particular photos and preventing them from being spread to unintended audiences. The main tool that they use to ensure that only desired audiences see particular photos is selecting which platform and account to post them on. Snapchat’s ability to notify users if a screenshot of their photo is taken was mentioned by several of the teens as one of the most valuable features of the platform, but this is prized less as a technical tool than as an implicit social signal that a photo should not be spread beyond the initial audience: “It’s considered rude to take a screenshot of somebody’s Snapchat… because you sent them that picture like for however many seconds and they’re not really respecting that.” (Courtney, female, 16)

Participants in our Young Canadians in a Wired World survey mostly expected that their friends would ask before posting a photo of them, particularly one that is bad or embarrassing. While the teens in this study mostly agreed that the people in a photo had a right to decide whether or not that photo was shared, they are more likely to think about how their friends would feel before posting, as opposed to directly asking them for permission. Similarly, while the top strategy reported in Young Canadians for dealing with an unwanted photo was to ask the poster to take it down, participants in this study mostly prefer to rely on indirect signals, hints and nudges to ask that photos be deleted: one participant, for example, sent a copy of the offending picture with herself edited out to the person who had shared it.

Little awareness of consumer rights or the commercial environment

The teens we interviewed do not generally think of the platforms they use as businesses, or understand how using them makes those corporations money, a finding that’s in line with the Young Canadians participants’ generally poor understanding of corporations’ interest in their personal information. While these teens have a variety of strategies for managing their online identities in the eyes of their imagined audiences, when it comes to corporate access to their data they have only two: hoping that the sheer number of photos will provide them with privacy by obscurity and rationalizing that they have not posted anything “that would come back to haunt them.”

“I highly doubt they’d pick a random girl from Ottawa’s pictures to like stare at ‘cause I don’t think that’s something that’ll happen. I hope not.” (Amira, female, 16)

In almost every case, the teens had not read or understood the platforms’ privacy policies and terms of service and did not feel that reading these would provide them with any useful information or help them understand their rights or possible remedies when dealing with the corporations that own the platforms. Most said this was because these documents were too long and difficult to read – not surprising considering that only a third of the participants in Young Canadians had ever had anyone explain a privacy policy to them. The teens in this study also had little or no awareness of their legal rights as consumers under PIPEDA or of the fair information principles that corporations are required to abide by when handling personal information. However, they expressed strong opinions when asked about the idea of platforms looking at their photos or using photos for purposes that they hadn’t agreed to.

I really do not know [why corporations keep photos] ‘cause what could they do with your picture? Why do they have it? What could they do with it? It doesn’t make sense to have it if they don’t even know you… I don’t really want them to have my picture. I mean what would they do with it? It’s actually scary. (Kaya, female, 14)

As far as these teens are concerned, the platforms have not asked them for consent to use their photos or personal information, nor do they feel they’ve given it by agreeing with a platform’s terms and conditions. Instead, they imagine giving consent to corporations in the same way as they do for their peers: one photo at a time, and with an implicit understanding of their intentions:

I don’t even think that they should have access to the photo. They made the social media and everything, but having access to people’s photos is just too much. Especially if it’s a private account, they obviously made it private so random people don’t see, and then Instagram is doing exactly what the owner of the account didn’t want. (Pavlina, female, 14)

As this exploratory research confirms, taking and sending photos is something the teens we interviewed do every day. Despite its routine quality, though, they put a significant amount of thought and effort into making sure that different audiences see them as they want to be seen.

Though they have little awareness of the ways that the corporate owners of their favourite platforms make use of their photos and other data, these teens have a strong sense that their photos are – or ought to be – their property, and that those corporations should seek their consent in the same way they expect of their peers. These findings help to show us the way forward in educating youth about the ways in which they participate in the information economy, and about their rights as digital citizens:

  • Digital literacy education. Privacy education that focuses on technical tools, such as platforms’ privacy settings, are unlikely to be successful as these teens did not make significant use of them. Given their interest in controlling audiences, it would be more effective to educate youth about the ability of these tools to limit who can see individual posts or photos rather than broadly keeping content “private.”The participants’ reliance on social norms and signals to manage their privacy also shows how important it is that privacy ethics be a part of digital literacy education. Youth need to be made aware of the ethical dimensions of sharing others’ photos and encouraged to confront both the “empathy traps” of digital communication and the “moral blind spots” by which some peers may be seen to have given up their right to control what happens to their images.
  • Digital citizenship education. Young people need to be made aware of their rights as digital citizens and encouraged to participate in civic activities online and to take an active role in forming the cultures and values of their online communities. Digital literacy and online safety programs must also be careful to avoid using scare tactics or reflecting attitudes that exaggerate the risks of speaking out online.
  •    Consumer awareness education. The most serious gap identified in the participants’ knowledge is in this area. It is impossible to even begin consumer education until students know that they are participating in an economic transaction, and understand at least the basic aspects of the deal they have agreed to. Helping youth to understand how the platforms that they use make money off of their participation is essential to making them informed consumers who can give genuine consent to the use of their personal information.