Youth, Privacy, and Online Media

As you read this article, reflect on how our expectations of privacy have changed over the past few generations. After you read, take some time to think about the activities you engage in that could be subject to data collection. Does this bother you? What do you do to limit the data collected from your online activity? Write an essay of two or three paragraphs summarizing your thoughts.


One of the characteristics of the Internet era is the way it changes the modalities for public and private life. The Internet extends the public sphere with online services and an infrastructure in which life and practices are recorded, made trackable and shareable. Ubiquitous computing internalizes public life in the private sphere of the individual. Thus, increasingly private life requires a special effort, which is an option that one has to activate. As addressed by a wide range of scholars, this fundamentally challenges the protection of the right to privacy, and more generally the conditions for exercising public and private life in the online domain. The discussion about the right to privacy in the context of online media and its practical implementation has been subject of debate in global policy discussions since the 1990s. Here, online privacy has predominantly been described as a form of protection of internet users' legal right to privacy or as a protection of "the liberal self". "Privacy" and particularly "online anonymity" have also lived through a stage of more negative connotations, blamed for aiding and effecting identity theft, trolling, bullying, terrorism, and illegal sharing of copyrighted material. Thus, it can be argued that "Privacy has an image problem". However, whereas discourses concerning these concepts until recently were created mainly in the domains of politics, business, activism and technology development, discussions concerning privacy and online anonymity have now reached a more "popular sphere", which includes the ordinary users of the Internet and mainstream media. This "popular momentum" was infused by the still ongoing revelations by the American NSA-contractor Edward Snowden of the NSA's Internet surveillance programs, yet one can also argue that it was a process in the making for several years. Ordinary Internet users are over the past years increasingly demanding the opportunity to create their own circles of inclusion and exclusion online and have control over the contexts in which they share their data.

The notion of "youth" is often used in policy-making, in media accounts and in business development as symbolic constituents of the future student, consumer, employee, citizen as well as the transformation of social and organizational norms in the Internet era. Terms such as Generation Y and Millennials, the Net generation or Digital Natives are employed to designate a gap between an older generation of business developers and policy-makers (and teachers and parents) and a generation that are growing up with digital media as a natural extension of their everyday life and practices. Similarly, this depiction of a generation of media savvy young people has found its way into discussions concerning online privacy and data protection. One argument is that we see a culturally diminishing interest in privacy as particularly young people are growing up with open networks and many are avid online sharers that willingly develop their everyday lives in intrinsically public social networks. Thus, privacy is, so to speak, "no longer a social norm". An argument as such, will normally precede a case for lesser need for privacy control and more open networks. However a number of recent surveys among youth, including the survey presented in this paper, fundamentally challenges and rejects this argument. These surveys illustrate how youth deal with issues of control over the treatment of their data on a daily basis even in a context where online sharing is indeed the default.

This paper is structured as follows: Firstly, it briefly outlines the right to privacy in an online context, including its policy implications, how it relates to youth and social media, and its relation to online public life. Secondly, it presents the results of the Danish study, focusing in particular on the respondents' perceptions of online social life; their strategies and practices to preserve and control online privacy, and their knowledge and assessment of privacy risks. Thirdly, these results are discussed with a view to the ongoing transformation of privacy in an online context. In conclusion and based on the previous discussions and study findings, three open questions to public policy-making are raised.