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.

From Ethics and Empathy to Making and Remixing: Extending Digital Literacy to the Secondary Grades

By MediaSmartsdlf-9to12-en

For more than a decade, MediaSmarts has been a leader in defining digital literacy in Canada. This is reflected in the elementary digital literacy framework we launched in 2015. The Use, Understand & Create framework is based on a holistic approach which recognizes that the different skills that make up digital literacy cannot be fully separated. The framework identifies six overlapping aspects of digital literacy – ethics and empathy, privacy and security, finding and verifying, digital health, consumer awareness, and community engagement – and includes resources to ensure that every Canadian student from Kindergarten to Grade Eight can receive a comprehensive digital literacy education. Now we are extending that work to the secondary grades with a suite of new lessons in all six categories as well as adding a seventh aspect – Making and Remixing – to help students learn how to use digital tools to collaborate with others and to create and ethically remix content.

Though the new secondary resources draw on the same principles of digital literacy, they reflect the important differences between teens and younger children found in our Young Canadians in a Wired World data. Because teens’ online experiences are more varied and more likely to encompass multiple platforms and devices, many of these resources help youth to understand how the different digital skills learned in earlier grades interrelate and reinforce one another in helping to address the new challenges they face. In dealing with sexting, for example, youth need to not just be able to manage their own privacy and make ethical decisions about others’ but also to understand the differences between healthy and unhealthy relationships (American research has found that sexts sent as a result of pressure or coercion are three times more likely to result in a negative outcome). Our new Ethics and Empathy lesson Online Relationships: Respect and Consent encourages students to consider the importance of ethical thinking and consent before sharing any content that might be harmful. It presents a series of scenarios that explore issues such as coercion, lack of consent, violation of privacy and making private content public in low-stakes situations that are relevant to students’ day-to-day experience.

Our Young Canadians findings allowed us to “start where the learner is” by building on the approaches we know youth are already using. Their preference for social strategies in dealing with privacy issues, for instance, served as the jumping-off point for Online Relationships: Respect and Consent. Similarly the findings in our report Young Canadians’ Experiences with Electronic Bullying – which looked at what leads witnesses to cyberbullying to intervene (or not intervene) and which intervention strategies were most likely to help without making things worse – allowed us to provide practical advice on how to help targets of bullying in our lesson First, Do No Harm: How to Be an Active Witness to Cyberbullying.

One of the most striking findings in our Young Canadians survey was the number of youth who said they sleep with their cell phones at night to avoid missing anything: more than half of Grade 11 students report doing this. The amount of time students spend on their devices is just the tip of the iceberg, as many report being stressed by constantly comparing themselves to their friends, by the pressure to seem happy and successful on social media, and what they themselves call FOMO (“fear of missing out”). Our Digital Health lesson Dealing with Digital Stress helps students identify habits in their lives that are making them anxious and teaches them evidence-based strategies for managing their time, changing harmful habits and attitudes, and making time for rest and relaxation.

Besides needing to look happy and popular to their peers, as students reach their teen years they’re also under stress to present an online image that will be appropriate for potential employers, college and university admissions officers, and others who know enough to be suspicious of someone with no social media presence, or who recognize a freshly-scrubbed profile when they see one. Our Privacy and Security lesson Your Online Resume empowers students to “accentuate the positive” and take control of their online identity by considering the different audiences who might see their content and making a plan to ensure that they’re sending the right message to each audience.

Our research also gave us insight into what students aren’t doing: while the data showed that most students are learning and using search and verification skills in school, it also showed that they are not as likely to use them to verify content they come across outside of school. That’s why our new Finding and Verifying lesson Authentication Beyond the Classroom teaches students not just how to fact-check the latest viral photo or video but why they should verify something by helping them understand that in our networked world we are, in effect, all journalists, and we have an ethical duty to be sure something is true before passing it on.

While Canadian youth are creating lots of content on social media, our data shows that relatively few are producing creative content such as music or videos, and our recent teacher survey  conducted with the Canadian Teachers’ Federation, Connected to Learn: Teachers’ Experiences with Networked Technologies in the Classroom, shows that few are doing these activities in class either. But media production, which has always been a central part of media literacy, has never been simpler: students can now do things with their phones that just a decade ago would have required expensive video cameras. Editing and remixing, which once required specialized hardware or software, can now be done with free online tools, and it’s never been easier for youth to find an audience for the content they create – but these new tools come with ethical considerations as well. Our Making and Remixing lesson Remixing Media teaches students the rights they have to remix content under Canadian copyright law and has them look at the different kinds of remixes and the different legal and ethical considerations associated with each one, before creating a critical remix of their own.

The ethical considerations of remixing highlight the issue of digital citizenship. Even more than digital literacy, the precise definition of this term is still evolving: all too often it’s simply a list of “thou shalt nots” which, while important, fail to engage youth. What may be more valuable is to approach digital citizenship not as a separate subject but as the ideal outcome of digital literacy education, and to view it in terms not just of the responsibilities but also the rights of a digital citizen. A rights-based approach to digital citizenship provides the essential link between teaching youth what they can do to manage and defend their privacy and empowering them to actually do it. Young Canadians need to know that they don’t give up their rights when they go online and, in fact, they may have rights they’re not aware of.  Online Cultures and Values lets students investigate how online communities such as social networks and multiplayer games form their cultures and values and how every member of these communities has the right and the power to influence those values so that racism, sexism, and other forms of harassment aren’t tolerated. While this lesson shows students how they can make a difference in their online communities, our three-part lesson Digital Storytelling for Civic Engagement (which teachers can deliver as a unit or as standalone lessons) combines Making and Remixing and Civic Engagement competencies to help students use digital tools to be active citizens in their offline communities. By having students research and create a Digital Story – a simple but flexible media product which can be done with even the most minimal media production tools – on an issue that’s relevant to them and their community, and then find ways of getting it in front of the right audience, this lesson series prepares students for a lifetime of active citizenship.

There’s no question that networked technologies pose significant risks and challenges for Canadian teens, but they offer unparalleled opportunities as well. Now that MediaSmarts’ comprehensive digital literacy framework Use, Understand & Create  has been extended to the secondary level, we’re able to prepare them to be active and engaged digital citizens. Based on our ground breaking research on digital literacy education in Canada – Mapping Digital Literacy Policy and Practice in the Canadian Education Landscape – and linked to existing curriculum outcomes for each province and territory – provides tools for teachers, parents, administrators and policymakers to ensure that all Canadian students get the digital literacy education they need for living and working in a digital world.

Use, Understand & Create: A Digital Literacy Framework for Canadian Schools (K-12) was made possible by financial contributions from CIRA through the .CA Community Investment Program. The framework and supporting resources are freely available at