Education Week - May 16, 2018 - 10
DIGITAL DIRECTIONS > TRACKING NEWS AND IDEAS IN EDUCATIONAL TECHNOLOGY
Teens Express Worries
About Online Privacy
With early-learning expert
By Benjamin Herold
Contrary to stereotypes, many young people are acutely concerned
about online privacy, spending significant time managing how they
present themselves on social media and worrying about what happens
to the digital trails they leave.
That's the takeaway from new research presented last month at the
annual conference of the American Educational Research Association by
CLAIRE FONTAINE of the Data & Society Institute.
As part of a small study, Fontaine and colleagues interviewed 28
teenagers and young adults, ranging from 16 to 26 years old. All were
low-income New York City residents, all owned a smartphone or similar
mobile device, and all regularly used at least one social-media platform.
I think that
schools have a
should have a
to opt out."
Data & Society Institute
Schools play key role in protecting students
How anxious were these young people about navigating the online
"It's like getting a tattoo every time you go on the internet," said one
young woman in the study.
In an interview, Fontaine talked about the implications her research
has for K-12 schools-including the problems associated with treating
privacy primarily as a matter of personal responsibility and rushing
to embrace technology-related initiatives such as 1-to-1 computing,
personalized learning, and computer science education.
This transcript of the conversation has been edited for length and
There's a perception out there that
young people don't care about privacy.
Is that what you found?
Across the board, the young people we spoke to
were deeply concerned about privacy and had a
great appetite for adult guidance.
Some had a vague, ambient sense that mobile
devices and social-media platforms were not
safe, secure spaces. Other young people were
intimately aware of the vulnerabilities in these
systems. But the common thread was deep
concern about issues of privacy and security
and a sense of vulnerability and wanting more
adult guidance than they had experienced.
You describe online privacy violations
as "inevitable and widespread." Why?
Unless you are going to great lengths to
customize your phone, it is by default
tracking your movements through time and
space. It is sending to companies information
on where you live, places you frequent, the
grocery stores you use. Many apps that you
download, depending on their settings and
terms of service, may be transmitting the
same types of information and selling it on to
Parents, teachers, and young people should be
aware that the big consumer-tech platforms
are also creating massive dossiers on them.
10 | EDUCATION WEEK | May 16, 2018 | www.edweek.org
Did the young people in your study
There was greater awareness of interpersonal,
rather than structural, types of threats.
Most of the anxiety they felt was around
whether they were getting into stressful
interactions with people they might see in the
street or in the hallway, because of what they
were posting online. Or they were asking, "Why
are my parents posting to my Facebook page?"
or "Oh my goodness, I wasn't thinking when I
started my Instagram account when I was 12
that those pictures would be findable when I
was applying to colleges."
How does that affect young people?
From a youth-development perspective,
adolescence is supposed to be a period when
you try on different identities and see what fits.
My question is whether the internet is a hostile
space for that.
During his testimony before Congress, for
example, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg
emphasized that, ostensibly, users do have
control over what content they post and who
gets to see what. But the process of figuring
that out is very laborious. There's also an
assumption within the platform that anything
you put up is public across all contexts, and if
you'd like to change that, the onus is on you.
One of your big conclusions is that young
people have to do a lot of "invisible work"
to navigate all this. What does that
It's usually done retrospectively, when they've
realized there is some information they don't
want to be out there. Then all of a sudden,
they're trying to remember what information
they used to set up an account or how to get
into old accounts and clean them up. It's very
reactive, driven by a perceived need to scrub
something that is potentially dangerous.
I think it feels very alienating for them.
In some of the interviews, there were a lot
of statements alluding to a feeling of selfconsciousness and hyper-self-awareness that
almost created a form of paralysis.
Other people spent a lot of energy creating a
curated online version of themselves, a virtual
version of themselves that would be palatable
to a general audience.
Isn't that just being a responsible
A 12-year-old shouldn't have to present herself
as an employable white-collar worker when
she goes on to social media for the first time
in middle school. I think that's the project of
adulthood, not adolescence. We're seeing the
adultification of teenage-hood.
What are the downsides of framing online
privacy as solely a matter of personal
No amount of personal responsibility is going
to secure your privacy and security online. The
idea that it's possible to do so is a lie.
What message would you want to send
to K-12 educators, administrators,
I think that schools have a responsibility to
be transparent with students and parents
about the trade-offs associated with the
technologies they use. There may be more
efficient communications, for example, but that
may come with creating a record of all those
communications that schools can't control.
Young people should have a genuine ability to
And unless we engage with these invisible
emotional dimensions, these fears and
anxieties that young people have about online
participation, we may run into obstacles we
can't otherwise explain.
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