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Teenage clicks: can teens protect their privacy on social media?

Web Foundation · September 4, 2018

This post was written by Michael Cañares, Web Foundation Senior Research Manager.

“Sometimes, I feel like I don’t have privacy anymore. Even if I do not post often in my accounts, people will still see me in tagged posts, comments, from albums of someone else. Social media has become invasive.”

This is what an eleven-year-old told our researcher as part of a new study we published today — looking at how teenagers in low and middle-income countries think about social media and their privacy.

Social media has changed not only how we communicate, but how we present ourselves, how we view our personal information and what we choose to share with the world. It’s important to understand how people are navigating these tools and to make sure they are in control and able to mitigate privacy risks online.

The boy’s feeling of resignation is not unique. Our researchers heard similar sentiments from many of the young people they spoke to. We interviewed young people across the three areas: Bohol, Philippines; Jakarta, Indonesia and the Kenyan counties of Kiambu and Machakos.

We asked them a series of questions to better understand how they behave on social media and how they view the privacy risks that come with these tools. We focused on young people for two main reasons. Firstly, they are typically the heaviest users of social media. This is true across the three countries we studied, despite the relatively high costs of data. Secondly, because of this, and because they are inherently more vulnerable than adults, teenagers are most exposed to various privacy and health risks, with cyberbullying being an often-cited example.

Findings – Social media, teens and their privacy:

  • Social media use: In the areas we studied, teenagers used social media extensively. Those surveyed used social media on a daily basis, primarily to connect with friends and share content.
  • Data sharing: While the teenagers were typically relaxed about sharing their personal information, they seemed to be unaware that by using social media, they also share data they do not input directly, such as location data and browsing history.
  • Data collection: Most were aware that social media companies collect their personal data, but did not know or did not care about how these platforms use these data.
  • Terms of service: While many said that they browse through firms’ Terms of Service, they do not understand them or see them as important.
  • Sharing data for services: Those surveyed understood data privacy to mean being in control of who they share information with. They considered sharing personal data with companies as a necessary condition for accessing services.
  • Feeling powerless: Teenagers surveyed were aware of the risks of sharing their information publicly but they feel powerless to protect themselves.

The study finds that teenagers tend to understand privacy to mean being in control of what information they share and who they share it with. This confirms existing research on the subject. However, many interviewees believed that social media companies also have a responsibility to ensure their platforms are secure and not putting users at risk. In other words, the responsibility for privacy sits with both users and companies.

We found a number of young people who were proactive in trying to maintain control of their privacy, adopting various strategies, such as using fake names, making their accounts private and being selective about who they allow to view their content. However, the overwhelming feeling was that once their data is out there, it is no longer within their control — leading to a sense of powerlessness.

To help social media users, especially young people, stay in control of their privacy, we need to:

Develop a global data protection standard

Web Foundation research highlights the importance of regulations that protect data privacy. However, besides the EU’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), most countries lack strong regulatory frameworks. The GDPR will not protect the students featured in this study. Without global data protection standards, a new form of inequality will persist. While some people enjoy robust privacy protections, others will remain second-class digital citizens.

Promote digital literacy, especially among young and vulnerable people

Several experts argue that users themselves are responsible for controlling their data and protecting their privacy. However, before we can put the burden of data privacy on users, they must be equipped with the digital literacy and privacy-awareness skills required to make informed decisions.

Push for companies that process data to be more transparent and accountable in the way they use data

Social media companies must do far more to help people understand how they treat data — including making terms of service accessible and clear. This must be followed by providing customers with real, meaningful choices about how their personal data is collected and used.

Conduct more research

More research on privacy and data protection is needed — particularly in the context of low and middle-income countries. We need to understand more about how people access the web, how they can be protected against privacy risks, and how they can better protect themselves from the dangers of being online while enjoying the benefits.

Download the report to read the Findings & Recommendations in full.

For updates on our research, follow us on Twitter @webfoundation and sign up to receive our newsletter. For more information on the work of our Open Data Lab Jakarta, visit:

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