Teenagers on privacy

Giovanni Buttarelli

I have repeated on many occasions my deep conviction that the GDPR is going to be the keystone of data protection law for a generation.

This generation is going to include the ‘millennials’, digital ‘natives’ who have grown up knowing only connected things, with their social lives and education mediated by touch screens and apps.

The new GDPR provisions on profiling, consent and the right to be forgotten, for instance, are an attempt to transpose individual control to the big data era. Another innovation, and one which is going to require careful thought in its implementation, is the framework for safeguard children’s right to data protection – a big challenge for the EU given sensitivity of the subject and diversity of national conceptions of when precisely a child becomes an adult.

As a father of (ex-)teenagers I know how the boundaries of their privacy are keenly contested. Today teens have tech-dependent lives within what one recent study has called the ‘persistent, visible, searchable, and spreadable nature of online social environments’.  They are also skilful manipulators of this technology. But do they really have a different conception of privacy to my generation?  If privacy can be conceived as freedom from interference from more powerful persons in authority, then it is perhaps unsurprising that teenagers are much more concerned with protecting their intimate spaces from parents and teachers, rather than from governments or internet corporations.

Anna, aged 17, recently did her work experience with us. She knew nothing about data protection law, but she agreed to share her reflections, and those of a sample of her peers. Legal terminology may be absent, but established notions like consent, fairness and user control are clearly present in her article. We are pleased to present it here as our first guest blog.

It’s a thought provoking and in some ways humbling contribution to a debate which will surely benefit from more authentic voices like Anna’s. 


Most British millennials will have heard the warning an ‘stranger danger’ (a slogan on which tries to advertise the danger of talking to people you don’t know). They will have seen the accompanying arguments advocating staying careful online. The assemblies, talks, and posters in and around school make it difficult for teenagers to forget that there is a threatening side to the internet and social media. However, most teens believe that they take the adequate precautions to ensure their safety and privacy online (keeping their Instagram accounts on private). But is this the case because they truly have retained privacy? Or is an adolescent perception of privacy different from an adult’s?

Personally, as a seventeen year old girl, social media is a large part of my life whether I like it or not. I have accounts on twitter, Instagram, snapchat and Facebook- as do all of my friends. The benefits of social media are indisputable. I have kept in contact with people after moving schools that without snapchat I would not have been able to do as easily and the group chats I have been added to on Facebook have enabled me to meet new friends and expand my social circle. Wherever I am my phone is an arm’s length away. The reliance of millennials, like myself, on our phones is a distasteful concept for a lot of older generations. This is the case for a number of reasons. Firstly, the comparison of ‘the good old days’ when children had to go outside to entertain themselves; playing games with the neighbours and running around in the garden- with how children entertain themselves now. If a child is bored all they need to do is reach for the closest electronic device, turn it on and stare at a screen until the boredom fades. The good old times definitely sound more appealing but it is pointless to think this way as those times have been steamrolled by the era of mobile technological devices. Furthermore, I must remind the older generation that these ‘good old times’ were also ripe with racism and homophobia. Not everything about the past was ‘good’, indeed a lot of it was quite unpleasant- especially for people of different skin colours and sexual orientations. Nevertheless, it is true that only using screens as a source of entertainment can be detrimental. Studies show that when a child grows up with an overreliance on technology, it can change how they think and how they focus- encouraging a shorter attention span. Thus, it is clear that children must have a balance of both screen time and other activities such as reading, sports and creative arts.

The second (and in my opinion more interesting) reason why older generations may be sceptical of the perpetual phone usage of millennials regards the safety and privacy that individuals have online. This is a real and valid concern. With the ever-evolving face of social media, teenagers are having to adapt and learn anew the correct way to share personal information. As a result, attitudes to privacy are rather dynamic. During an interview with a 16 year old girl from Essex named Louise, privacy was described as ‘being able to keep your personal information to yourself without having to worry about other people finding out’. With regards to this definition, it is difficult to claim that one can ever achieve true privacy while on-line- especially in relation to social media. Louise went on to tell me how she is always worried that when she talks to people, or tells them personal information, as they could take a screenshot and send it to others. ‘That changes the way I speak to people’ she said. Louise also voiced concerns about hackers- primarily ones from the government. She told me how easy it would be for government ‘tech wizards’ to hack into her snapchat or twitter account and read details like where she is from, who she is friends with and where she goes to school. Despite knowing that this is unlikely to happen, she is still aware that her privacy could be violated in this way. However, is it not true that government officials could break into a physical space and steal this information just as easily as a cyberspace? Teenagers believe that putting their accounts on private protects them just as putting a lock on the front door protects their houses.

Some adolescents do not see the need to privatise their accounts on social media such as Instagram as they believe that they can ‘control how much information they give away’. I also have a public Instagram account. This means that regardless of who this person is, if someone searches for my profile, they will be able to view it. Although it seems an overwhelming thought that anyone in the world could see my pictures, I am not particularly concerned by the notion. For me social media is a medium by which to control and moderate how you present yourself to the rest of the world. It provides a way for people to be better, cleaner and more interesting than they are in real life. Because of this, many people do not feel the need to privatise their accounts as it does not reveal any personal information that they don’t want people to know. 

Targeted advertising is an online phenomenon which introduces the opportunity for advertisers and online companies to learn all about us. Advertisers can exploit our internet searches and the websites we open in order to target individuals specifically. For example, someone who frequently shops on the website ‘misguided’ may open another tab to research something completely different yet still see the items they’ve viewed on misguided being advertised to them along the side of the webpage. Internet companies learn more about us than perhaps even our families based on our searches and presence online.

An online presence could cause many issues for those applying for universities and jobs in the future. Employers and admission teams could learn so much about us through the internet that application processes would have to change completely. All the times we have used the internet could be amalgamated into one picture of what kind of person we are and therefore whether or not we should be employed. Universities need only to look on our social media accounts, scroll through comments, and observe the pictures we have been tagged in to get a rough idea of the kind of person we are. This seems like a breach of privacy. For many people, social media websites and accounts are things to be used in order to relax and have some fun- if we are to be judged on them by employers and universities then that removes this sense of privacy and relaxation.

However, many teenagers do not think about their privacy online in this way. For them, pictures posted on Facebook and Instagram are temporary; easily removed and deleted. Snapchat is especially associated with this sense of impermanence. ‘I like how quickly everything on snapchat fades’, said one girl I interviewed. ‘Any posts are only on my story for 24 hours so I don’t have to worry about them being important, you know?’. This attitude, it seems, is held by many teenagers who use the app. Another girl, aged 13, said ‘its good that when you screenshot texts on snapchat, the person is alerted’. She explained to me that this stops people from saving messages and sending them to other people that they weren’t intended for. Therefore, teens can be more comfortable expressing themselves on snapchat as there is less risk of private messages being sent to others. 

Most teenagers are aware of the dangers on the internet, but worry the most about invasions of privacy from their parents. ‘I hate it when my dad reads my texts. He pretends he doesn’t but I know he does,’ said William, aged 15. He told me that it isn’t necessarily that he has anything to hide, just that it feels like a fundamental violation of privacy. A study shows that 8/10 teenagers believe its unethical for their parents to scroll through their phones, whereas 4/10 parents think so. William also said ‘going through my phone is like going through my bedroom.’ This is insightful as it reveals that privacy online is similar to the importance of physical privacy. Personally, I would not mind my parents going through my phone as long as they asked me first. It would be an invasion of privacy to go through my text messages or DMs (direct messages) on twitter without my permission. I know that I have nothing to hide but because teenagers devote such a large portion of their lives to social media then our phones become similar to a diary. The diary extracts are the conversations, the tweets, the posts on Instagram. They all reveal something about ourselves that we would feel uncomfortable with people reading without permission- just as you would if someone read your diary.

Because our parents, teachers and elders have not grown up with phone in hand, their lives are nt as entwined in technology as ours. We, the generation of smart phones and social media, are exploring the problems and advantages that new technologies face first-hand. However, because we have grown up with this technology, this is our world and many of us trust our phones. To some teenagers, the internet has played a parental role- teaching, guiding and nurturing them through life. Adults do not have this same trust and relationship with technology and so are more sceptical. I believe that in order to effectively dictate the regulations surrounding internet safety, adults- who do not have the same relationship with their smart phones- need to try to understand how engrained teenagers are within the internet. This can lead to naiveté online as they often don’t think about the consequences of their actions- blindly trusting their technological hand-held guides.

Adolescents need to be taught how to be safe. They need to be taught how to govern the internet in a way that does not reveal too much personal information. But some adults need to accept that telephones are here and here to stay instead of grumbling about the ‘good old days’ and what teenagers used to be like. We need to come together in order to understand and navigate this new world safely and wisely.