Changing attitudes towards online privacy among teenagers has huge implications for brands. But the assumption that young people are indifferent about their online lives and how their personal data is used is wide of the mark.
There is an almost universally held view that teenagers simply don’t care enough about online privacy. And, at face value, there seems to be good evidence for this. In the UK, Paris Brown famously felt obliged to resign as the country’s first Police Youth Crime Commissioner after some ill-advised tweets she had made some years previously. Other cases have involved teens taking their lives after being blackmailed over ill-advised personal footage posted online. While these are the more extreme examples, many who have contact with teenagers are aware of instances where they have not appeared to have sufficient concern for their privacy.
Teenagers make an easy target for society. They are easily identifiable (by their age, of course) as well as being a relatively small and powerless segment of the population. This gives them the characteristics of a group that the wider population will use to express their concerns and fears, because by focusing our concerns onto a smaller, more vulnerable, group it makes us feel better about ourselves. So teenagers have always been considered to be the harbingers of declining standards and slack morals – from feral youth and teenage pregnancy to falling educational attainment and gaming addictions. You name a societal ill and teenagers will often be considered at the forefront, a special status granted by their age that asserts their role as signifying the future of our society.
Therefore, the narrative about the way in which teenagers manage privacy has huge implications for brands. If teens are playing fast and loose with their privacy, it is argued, surely this is a leading indicator of more general societal changes. Indeed, Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg has claimed that privacy is no longer a social norm, using it to justify changing the network’s privacy settings. But if the assumption that teenagers are not concerned with online privacy is wrong then this has much wider implications for the way in which brands use personal data.
So what do teenagers think about privacy? As it turns out, much the same as the rest of us, or at least as far as our research at GfK among this age group shows. However, the issue is much trickier for teens due to the degree to which they live their lives online. Teenagers have always sought out public spaces where they can gather and socialise, forging their adult identities and defining themselves as separate from their parents in the process. So, in this context, participation in ‘digital publics’ is hardly surprising.
In fact, teenagers are de facto required to participate in social networks, as failure to do so results in social exclusion. But as Danah Boyd and Alice Marwick pointed out in a key paper(1) on this topic: 'Just because teens are socialising in a public setting does not mean they want to be public figures, nor does it mean that they want to be the object of just anyone’s gaze'.
- Transparency. Brands need to be open and above board in the way they communicate with consumers about privacy. This involves being clear about what data is being collected, with whom it is being shared and for what purposes.
- Access. Brands need to provide consumers with the opportunity to access their own data, whether this is to check that the data held on them is correct or to access their data so they can use it for their own purposes, such as in the case of utilities, monitoring their energy usage.
Control. Having clear and transparent means of managing privacy settings but also to control the way their data is managed.Rather perversely, teenagers may move from being appropriated as a justification for relaxing privacy to being a source of pressure for brands to fundamentally consider new business models as the cavalier use of personal data becomes a sensitive consumer issue. And so, despite teenagers’ apparent powerlessness, their power is in their ability to set fire to issues through increasingly vocal subcultures. Brands fail to understand this at their peril.