One of the fundamental principles that children and young people need to learn about staying safe and secure online is to protect their privacy. The earlier they take their first footsteps in the virtual world, the greater their online presence and the bigger their circle of friends, then the more likely it is that personally identifying information will be made public.
Making wise privacy choices helps young people to stay safe, secure and in control of their digital footprint, as they grow up and become citizens in the digital world.
This first in our series of short reports based on our 'Like, post, share—Young Australians’ experience of social media' research presents findings specifically on the issue of privacy. We aim to provide some answers to the question ‘How well do young Australians protect their online privacy?’
About this report
In 2011–12, the Australian Communications and Media Authority (the ACMA) went into the field to survey children’s and young people’s attitudes towards the internet and social media. We looked particularly at their attitudes and behaviours around online risk and risk management, and explored the role of other people—mums and dads, brothers and sisters, and friends—in helping children and young people navigate their online lives.
This is the first in a series of related short reports to be published during 2013. The full report, 'Like, post, share—Young Australians experience of social media'—to be published later this year—sets out the findings from the qualitative and quantitative phases of the research. This evidence-based approach underpins Cybersmart program development, ensuring that the ACMA’s Cybersmart resources are relevant and tailored to address real concerns.
About the research
The qualitative phase of the study was conducted in June 2011, and included:
- six group discussions with 13 to 17-year-olds
- six in-home in-depth interviews in friendship pairs with eight to 12-year-olds
- four in-home ethnographic immersions, also in friendship pairs, with 12 to 15-year-olds.
The research took place across metropolitan and regional areas of New South Wales and South Australia.
The national quantitative survey was conducted using an online methodology during June 2012. It included an introductory survey for parents, followed by a survey of one of their randomly selected children aged between eight and 17 years.
1,511 interviews were completed (n=604 eight to 11-year-olds and n=907 12 to 17-year-olds).
What did young people tell us?
In the qualitative first phase of the project we found that risks to privacy were generally seen only in the ‘immediate’, as relating to here-and-now personal safety questions:
There is some stuff you think about like your phone number, but most of the time I don’t think you need to worry that much about other stuff.
Most felt they were pretty much in control of their privacy, and demonstrated a strong theoretical understanding of what to do and what not to do:
"When people check in at home it just makes me laugh. They’re so stupid, now everyone knows where they live."
However, some opted not to put limits on their personal information, believing that risks are not difficult to avoid:
"We sort of share our passwords, or you might ask me mine for five bucks or something. My friend gave his password to someone but had to tell them who it was they liked at school...it’s alright though because you just go and change it again."
There was a view expressed that online risks are not significant unless they move into the offline space:
"The actually risky stuff isn’t happening online is it really? You can’t get kidnapped online? It’s only if you do stupid stuff in the real world... "
What did the numbers tell us?
The quantitative phase gave us the opportunity to explore some of the themes that emerged from the qualitative phase, and to check our knowledge of children and young people’s online experiences and behaviour. This information is critical to the Cybersmart program—it allows us to properly identify what current issues are, to whom they are of most importance and how they might most effectively be addressed within the educational framework we provide.
Some questions were only posed to the teenagers (12 to 17–year-olds)—the relevant age groups are indicated on the following tables.
A snapshot of social networking activities
Australian children and young people are avid users of the internet and of social networking services (SNS). While access via a computer still predominates, increasingly children and young people are accessing the net on their mobile phones.
Popular SNS activities included playing games, posting comments on someone else’s posts or photos and—of course—posting their own updates. This activity is ‘out in the open’ and visible—at least to their friends and followers. However, another very popular activity we identified was private messaging1. In the last four weeks, 28 per cent of eight to nine-year-olds and 31 per cent of 10 to 11-year-olds had sent private messages. In the older age groups, the rate climbed to 68 per cent of 12 to 13-year-olds, 82 per cent of 14 to 15-year-olds and 89 per cent of 16 to 17-year-olds. The capacity for communications to be online, and yet under the radar, is something parents, teachers and policy-makers need to remain aware of.
Setting profiles to private
A positive finding is that the majority of teen SNS users have set their profile to private.
Figure 1 Is your profile set to...?
View figure 1 data in table form
Posting personal information
However, the likelihood of children and young people posting personal information2 on social networks increased with age—from 28 per cent of eight to nine-year-old SNS users to a significant 77 per cent of 14 to 15-year-old users and 79 per cent of 16 to 17-year-old users.
Figure 2 Which of the following things have you posted on your social networking profile?
View figure 2 data in table form
Eight to 11-year-olds were more likely to post their full name (16 per cent) than they were to post other personal information. However, they were also more likely to post an age that wasn’t their real age (10 per cent) than other information.
This has the same effect as posting under a pseudonym—it helps to mask true identity. However, it also signals the capacity for younger children to register for social networking services intended for those aged 13 years and older.
Older children (12 and older) and teenagers mainly posted photos of themselves (57–68 per cent) and the name of their school (28–43 per cent), followed by their full name (27–34 per cent) and birth date (12–24 per cent). A proportion (19–22 per cent) also posted ‘ages that weren’t their real age’.
Relatively few of those surveyed posted their home address or mobile number—the age group most likely to post this information were the 14 to 15-year-old age group (11 per cent).
Passwords and passcodes for computers and mobile devices
Thirty-eight per cent of eight to nine-year-olds and 63 per cent of 10 to 11-year-olds reported having passwords or passcodes to access their computers and mobile devices.
Eighty-nine per cent of eight to nine-year-olds and 87 per cent of 10 to 11-year-olds reported having shared these with someone else.
Sixty-one per cent of 12 to 13-year-olds had shared their device passwords or passcodes, but this fell to 53 per cent of 14 to 15-year-olds and then to 48 per cent of 16 to 17-year-olds.
However, the person most likely to be the recipient of the shared password/passcode is a parent. This is true for all age groups. The next most frequent ‘shared with’ group are siblings.
Figure 3 Which of these people, if any, have you shared...a password to access your computer or mobile device?
View figure 3 data in table form
Sharing SNS passwords and passcodes
Fifty-nine per cent of eight to nine-year-olds and 76 per cent of 10 to 11-year-olds have passwords/passcodes for SNS in place.
Ninety per cent of eight to nine-year-olds and 78 per cent of 10 to 11-year-olds reported having shared their passwords/passcodes with someone else.
Fifty-eight per cent of 12 to 13-year-olds, 50 per cent of 14 to 15-year-olds and 41 per cent of 16 to 17-year-olds have shared their SNS password.
Once again, the person most likely to be trusted with the shared password/passcode is a parent. This is true for all age groups. The next most frequent ‘shared with’ group is mainly siblings.
Figure 4 Which of these people, if any, have you shared...a password to a social networking profile?
View figure 4 data in table form
Females are more likely than males to share their computer and SNS passwords (11 per cent versus four per cent, and 12 per cent versus six per cent respectively). The 14 to 15-year-old age group is most likely to tell a friend.
Risky online behaviour
The majority of children and young people had not engaged in the online risk behaviours identified in our survey. However, the risk behaviours they (particularly older teenagers) are most likely to have engaged in carry strong privacy implications. The behaviours in question were looking for new friends online or adding unknown ones to their list.
Figure 5 Have you done any of the following things in the last year?
View figure 5 data in table form
We asked the 12 to 17-year-old participants in our study whether they have or use a mobile device that has location-based services. More than a third of 12 to 13-year-olds, 65 per cent per cent of 14 to 15-year-olds and 71 per cent of 16 to 17-year-olds reported this capacity in their mobile devices.
Figure 6 Do you have or use a mobile device that has location based services ability?
View figure 6 data in table form
Teen SNS users also indicated that, among the various social networking activities they engaged in, they used location-based services in the last four weeks—18 per cent of 12 to 13-year-olds, 35 per cent of 14 to 15-year-olds and 41 per cent of 16 to 17-year-olds.
‘Checking in’ is most likely to be done by older teenagers, for themselves and for a friend.
Figure 7 In the last four weeks how often have you ... checked yourself/friends into a location?
View figure 7 data in table form
However, this is not an activity that undertaken with any great frequency—reports for checking in at least once a day range from one to nine per cent. Older teenagers are more likely to check themselves or their friends in at least daily.
Taking action to protect online privacy
Older teenagers were more likely than younger teenagers to report managing their privacy on social network services—51 per cent of 12 to 13-year-olds had completed at least one of the identified actions, increasing to 68 per cent of 14 to 15-year-olds and 67 per cent of 16 to 17-year-olds.
Figure 8 Have you ever...?
View figure 8 data in table form
On the whole, it seems that many Australian children and young people are aware of the need to stay safe and secure online. They acknowledge the importance of protecting their online privacy, and are actively taking steps to stay in control of the personal information they make public.
However, the research indicates that while many are putting practical measures into place—setting their profiles to private, sharing passwords predominantly with parents rather than with others—children and young people from eight to 17 are sharing personal information and looking for new friends on the internet, and adding people they have never met face-to-face. While some of this may be inadvertent (for example, through unfamiliarity with the location-based capabilities of their smartphones or the actions of their friends) a significant proportion is self-initiated.
The onus is on programs such as Cybersmart, working in partnership with families, schools, industry and other stakeholders, to ensure that children are given the information, skills and tools they need to be safe and secure digital citizens.
Ten Cybersmart steps to protect your privacy
When you share things online you may be sharing with other people you do not know or trust. Once a message, photo or video has been shared, you won't be able to control where it goes.
- Limit your friend list to people you do know—don’t ‘friend’ random people.
- Sharing passwords is not a good idea—unless it’s with a trusted adult like your Mum or Dad.
- Double-check your privacy settings—make sure that the information you share is only seen by the people you want to see it.
- Protect your digital reputation—think before you post, chat, upload or download.
- Don't use a web cam with strangers.
- Check which location services are enabled on your mobile phone—and switch off all of the unnecessary ones.
- Be very careful about checking in from your mobile phone—this lets people know where you are, what you're doing and where you have or haven't been.
- Check that you’re not also displaying your location details to those nearby who you might not know.
- If you feel unsafe while you’re at a particular location, contact the police, and if you have problems while using a service, report it to the service provider
- Apply the same rules to the stuff you post about your friends—make sure you check with them before you tag them in photos or check them to a location.
The Cybersmart program offers a range of resources to help children and young people, their parents, schools and libraries go online safely and enjoyably. For more information about Cybersmart resources and the Cybersmart Outreach program visit www.cybersmart.gov.au .
Connect with us
On Twitter— www.twitter.com/CybersmartACMA
On YouTube— www.youtube.com/ACMACybersmart
On Facebook— http://www.fb.com/cybersmartcloud
On our blog— http://engage.acma.gov.au/cybersmart
 A personal message or private message, often shortened to PM, is like an e-mail sent from one user to another user on an Internet forum, bulletin board system, social networking site (such as Facebook), or chat room (such as Internet Relay Chat) http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Personal_message
 ‘Personal information’ was specified as ‘a photo of yourself, the name of your school, your full name (first name and last name), your full date of birth, an age that is not your real age, your mobile number, your home address, or none of these’