Selling Privacy on the Internet

October 1, 2010 John Mould
Illustration by Darcy Muenchrath (

Author’s note: As Alberta’s Child and Youth Advocate, I belong to the Canadian Council of Provincial Child and Youth Advocates. In 2008, the Council and the Canadian Privacy Commissioners undertook a joint project to examine online privacy issues for children and youth. This undertaking was an awakening for me about how and how much the privacy of young people is invaded on the Internet. That project and subsequent research also identified technological influences on the methods and content of young people’s communication.

The following article borrows liberally from the content of a workshop I gave at a 2010 conference hosted by the ATA Committee on the Well-Being of Children and Youth and from a speech I presented at the 2010 Access and Privacy Conference hosted by the University of Alberta.

The discussion paper by the Canadian Advocates and Privacy Commissioners (1999), There Ought to Be a Law: Protecting Children’s Privacy in the 21st Century, makes many recommendations about privacy in relation to young people’s use of the Internet. However, the recommendations focus on legislation, regulation and enforcement; in other words, they look to third-party external forces to make things right and exclude actual users of technology. I believe that teaching young people about the importance of privacy and empowering them to protect it are essential to safeguarding their interests and teaching them how to use the Internet wisely.

Following are seven things you should do when talking to young people about privacy and the Internet.

1. Understand how young people can be exploited on the Internet and talk about how to avoid this

The collection and exploitive use of personal information for commercial and/or sexual purposes on the Internet is a reality. Even though it is statistically unlikely that a child will be sexually exploited through Internet use, it’s virtually certain that he or she will be commercially exploited.

There Ought to Be a Law (1999) points out that commercial exploitation starts as soon as a child engages in activities on Internet play sites. These sites systematically gather and use information to manipulate children into buying products or, more insidiously, to change their behaviour. Parents are complicit in exposing their children to this exploitation because they have to sign their children on to play sites and accept site user agreements.

As children get older they move from play sites to social networking sites, and the collection of personal data for commercial purposes—and sometimes for sexually exploitive purposes—continues unabated. The difference is that now young people contribute to their own exploitation by surrendering personal information for the privilege of using particular sites.

It’s clear that young people need to be informed about the dangers of Internet use. More important, adults must teach them about the choices they have online and the consequences of these choices. This isn’t a foolproof barrier against exploitation, but it is preferable to letting them learn the hard way.

2. Discuss what privacy really means and why it is important

Wikipedia defines privacy as “the ability of an individual or group to seclude themselves or information about themselves and thereby reveal themselves selectively … Privacy is sometimes related to anonymity, the wish to remain unnoticed or unidentified in the public realm. ... Privacy is broader than security and includes the concepts of appropriate use and protection of information.”

We in the West live in an age of security cameras on streets, at bank machines, gas stations, convenience stores, subway and train stations, and airports. Our photos are taken without our consent all the time. We don’t know who’s taking them and we don’t know what they’re doing with the photos. This is just the most obvious means of collecting information about us—covert gathering of personal information occurs on a greater scale. Our privacy is regularly invaded under the guise of security and protection. We’ve allowed it, and there’s no going back.

Our external environment has changed radically, and so, too, has the manner in which we surrender information about ourselves and publically display details about our private life (think of Facebook). Furthermore, TV reality shows and the media continually feed the voracious public appetite for the intimate details of the lives of celebrities, politicians and athletes. 

In the face of all this, what do young people believe privacy means? How does it apply to them? Has privacy become a commodity? Do they view their privacy as something to be traded for goods? How do they make sense of what they see and hear? Are we trying to promote and protect something that is meaningful to them?

Adults who are concerned about young people’s privacy must ask questions, provide answers and show leadership.

3. Teach people about the Internet at an early age

Little children learn to use technology and access the Internet with ease. Yet, they have only a rudimentary understanding of how computers work, what the Internet is or what it means to access a website. However, from the first moment they access a play space, they are treated as customers to be influenced and manipulated.

I believe that from as early an age as possible children should be introduced to the fact that something is going on behind the computer screen. We’re capable of explaining the complexities of the Internet in ways children can understand, and we’re capable of stirring their curiosity about their participation, abilities and responsibilities as users. Using the Internet is not a benign activity—it carries risks, yet we’re not arming our children with the knowledge they need to manage its benefits and risks.

4. Be as aware as you can about what youth are up to on the Internet

When it comes to technology and the Internet, young people rule. Their facility with personal electronic devices puts power in their hands.

Traditionally, adults and teachers served as educators and protectors. Adults defined what was good and bad, right and wrong; they determined when one was old enough to learn a skill or engage in new behaviour. But many adults lack enough understanding of the recent technological and communications revolution to provide leadership. And while there is growing (but not universal) awareness of the privacy issues facing young people, parents know that they can’t control their children’s access to and activity on the Internet all the time. Thus, young people are often left to learn on their own and from their peers. 

5. Teach the value of self-control and personal responsibility

Young people do not always grasp the connection between choice and consequence, and they often trade privacy for attention. Furthermore, the personal information they reveal often goes beyond such things as their telephone number and address—it includes photos, videos and messages that are potentially embarrassing, humiliating or illegal. Often, they act out of ignorance about how the Internet operates or out of a feeling of invulnerability. Many adolescents do not respect the privacy of friends or peers and post material to the Internet that was not meant for public display, an act that sometimes descends into cyberbullying.   

One course of action is to teach privacy management skills to young people and remind them that Internet use can have negative consequences. Remember to assure them that even though they are primarily responsible for safeguarding their own privacy, they can turn to adults if any problems arise.

6. Understand the developmental tasks of childhood and adolescence

A developmental task is one that arises predictably and consistently at a certain period in a person’s life (Davis and Havighurst 1947).

During early adolescence, developmental tasks relate to the expansion of a person’s world outside the home, such as forming intimate relationships, preparing for an occupation, achieving emotional independence from parents and developing a mature set of values and ethical principles. Peer groups play a major role in facilitating the achievement of adolescents’ developmental tasks by providing a context in which some of these tasks can be accomplished.

Childhood and adolescence are often tumultuous times full of the drama of learning, gaining skills and seeking answers to existential questions. Many youth manage these things smoothly but some do not. Furthermore, adolescence places much social pressure on all adolescents, who want to be liked and accepted, and are hurt when they are not.  

Electronic technology and the Internet have dramatically changed how parents, teachers and young people manage this drama. An explosion of real-time communication complexity has been introduced into an already rich mix of developmental activities. This is happening quickly—young people are awash in phoning, texting, posting and surfing while adults try to figure out what’s going on and what to do. Adults have had no time to prepare for or evaluate new ways of doing things and no time to learn to see the bigger picture. The intensity of the experience of adolescents’ separation from parents and family in search of their own identity has been heightened by constant communication between young people.

Given this, adolescence is too late to introduce concepts of privacy management. At a time when belonging—being part of a peer group and being cool—takes on overriding importance, young people are constantly bombarded with the complexities of day-by-day life and with trying to fit in. To deal with the competing forces associated with the developmental tasks of adolescence, young people need to have learned at an early age how to value and manage their own privacy, especially as they enter the social networking arena.

At particular risk are young people who don’t fare well in this demanding environment. For some, solace can be found in the relative calm of social networking sites where there’s freedom to live an invented life. However, this environment does not respect individual privacy and is often frequented by predators. Even when young people are told about the risks of participating in these sites, many still willingly surrender personal information in hopes of getting the attention and acceptance they crave.

7. Be sensitive to the changes brought on by puberty and the dangers of the Internet

Puberty brings added complexity to children’s development, and sexual behaviour and sexuality become dominant in communications between young people. This is not new. What is new is that the Internet provides unlimited access to sexual texts, pictures and videos—this, despite our reluctance as a society to openly acknowledge and discuss sex and sexuality. As much as we cling to the notion that sex and sexuality are best left to parents to discuss with their children, most young people learn about sex outside the family, often because young people are embarrassed to have sexual discussions with their parents or think their parents would be shocked or disappointed in them for wanting to know about sex. This suggests that parents often fail to set the stage for sensitive and difficult discussions and end up acting as barriers to their children’s sexual curiosity. In doing so, parents might be surrendering the moral education of their children to immoral strangers on the Internet.

For young people, sexuality is associated with limit testing, self-confidence and belonging. And because it’s a powerful force in their lives, young people are open to manipulation, and not just from within their peer group. Feeling attractive and accepted is important. Some young people do not feel this way because of visible differences (such as appearance, weight, disability) that separate them from others and mark them as less desirable. These young people are at risk of trading their uncomfortable and unsatisfying everyday existence for a place in a virtual world, where predators are only too ready to tell insecure or shunned young people that they are sexually attractive and desirable.

Adults can help children recognize and value differences as desirable and enriching to society by having discussions about how we need one another, about our responsibility to stand up for those who are treated unfairly and about how to deal with bullying. These discussions would lay a foundation for mutual understanding and civil behaviour and could smooth at least some of the rough experiences that are a part of adolescence. 

We need to find the courage to openly acknowledge young adolescents as emerging sexual beings, encourage personally responsible behaviour, and talk with them about this stage of their life, which is full of joys and heartaches, temptations and risks. Now more than ever, these conversations are urgently needed—we must not leave their learning in the hands of the Internet.


Clearly, privacy issues for young people using the Internet are inextricably linked to other issues of childhood and adolescence. I can’t stress enough the important role that parents play in helping young people deal with these issues. Parents don’t have to be technical wizards, but they do need to learn the basics about computers and the Internet. As well, they have to be curious about how their children use cellphones and computers and set limits for use. When parents set boundaries and take time to listen to their child’s point of view, parent and child become equal participants in the dialogue. Finally, parents must educate themselves about the privacy risks associated with the Internet and help their children become good privacy managers.

Learning to cope intelligently with the communication revolution must involve the education system because that system has integrated computers and the Internet into schools. My impression is that schools have done a good job familiarizing young people with using computers and the Internet as learning tools. However, schools are struggling to manage students’ use of electronic devices and the effects of such things as text messaging. Little time seems to be spent teaching privacy management and digital literacy, and teachers to whom I’ve spoken say that they feel unprepared in these areas. If what I hear is accurate, then it is time for teachers to request that their profession and their employers invest resources to help students deal with the personal and social challenges posed by electronic devices and the Internet, and to avoid selling their soul on the Internet.


Canadian Privacy Commissioners and Child and Youth Advocates. 1999. There Ought to Be a Law: Protecting Children’s Privacy in the 21st Century. Fredericton, NB: Office of the Ombudsman, Government of New Brunswick. Available online at (accessed August 31, 2010).

Davis, W. A., and R. J. Havighurst. 1947. Father of the Man: How Your Child Gets His Personality. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.

John Mould, MSW, RSW, has been Alberta’s Child and Youth Advocate since 2001.

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