The Fallacy of Online Privacy

Secure your accounts with strong passwords.

Limit the amount of personal information that you share online.

Change the settings in your social media accounts from public to private or “share only with friends”. 

These are some of the most common issues addressed when it comes to teaching students about online safety and privacy. Yes, it is important to have a robust password that will make it difficult for hackers and malicious bots to access one’s accounts. Yes, it is critical that students learn about their own digital footprint and how they can expose themselves when they post images, videos and messages that have personal information, in case it falls in the wrong hands. Yes, students must be aware of the privacy settings on their social media accounts, so they can make a choice about who gets to see their activity on those platforms.

However, it is essential that we make students aware that even if they dutifully follow the guidelines above, the information they share online, and also other information and data that has not been explicitly shared by them, is not private and that it might be used by others.

What percentage of our students are aware of what they are signing away when they click and accept on the Terms of Service of an app or a social media platform? How about ourselves?

Image by Catkin on Pixabay

The answer is probably an extremely small percentage. According to a Deloitte survey, 91% of people accept without reading legal terms and conditions for online services, and this percentage rises to 97% for people between 18 and 32 years old. It is probably safe to assume that this percentage will increase the younger the person is.

So, what exactly are we signing away when we consent to these Terms of Service agreements? Here are some examples of clauses included in the Terms of Service of some popular apps amongst teenagers.

  • You give Instagram the right to use, share and sell the videos and pictures that are uploaded to the app. Instagram might also keep and share some of your personal information such as locations tracked by the GPS on your device, your friends, likes and dislikes, names, addresses, email addresses, amongst other data.
  • You give Snapchat perpetual license to use, alter, and publicly display and perform any of the content that you share in Live, Local or any of their crowd-sourced services.
  • You give Facebook permission to gather data from your device such as other apps and accounts that you have, information from your contacts (telephone numbers, etc.), including from people who are not on Facebook. You also give them access to your time zone, mobile phone number and IP address, amongst other data.

Above all, most of the terms and conditions agreements include clauses regarding the right of the app to give the users’ data to third parties, which will use the data mostly for advertising purposes, but depending on the app, the data might be sold or distributed for other purposes. It is necessary to clarify that some of the permissions we grant when we consent, are permissions that allow the apps to work. For example, Snapchat and Instagram need to access the camera and microphone in your device, so photos and videos can be recorded directly from the app.

Things only get more obscure when dealing with apps from smaller businesses or start-ups, especially when the services offered through the apps are for free. For instance, a study from Germany reviewed 60 health apps and determined that none of them followed best practices for telling users about privacy matters related to the use of those apps.

So, where do we go from here?

Image by Photo Mix on Pixabay

As consumers, in this particular scenario, we are in a disadvantaged position, as the choice is either to accept the Terms of Service in the way they are presented to us, or not use the app or be able to open an account. This is especially challenging for teenagers when said app or social media platform is the one that all their peers are using to connect.

It would also be unrealistic to expect pre-teens (there are significant numbers of children aged 10-12 who are on social media) and teenagers to read in full and understand these lengthy documents that are laden with legal jargon.

Instead, there are a few actions that we can take as educators:

First, we need to work together with students and parents to help them understand the most common clauses used in Terms of Services agreements, so they can make informed decisions about their online presence and the apps they use. More than prompting them to not use these apps, the focus should be on raising awareness of these privacy breaches and to keep these terms in mind when posting on the apps. Furthermore, many apps have default settings that can be changed once the app has been installed to increase the user’s privacy to a certain extent. Guiding students and parents through these settings for the most popular apps would also help.

In addition, we must work with our students so they can be more critical at the moment of downloading and installing apps. For example, teaching students to check if the permissions asked by the app are unreasonable for the service it is providing (e.g. a flashlight app that wants your location information) and to avoid downloading apps from locations other than reputable app stores are two useful strategies. This video has some more tips on how to protect your privacy on your smartphone.

As teachers, we should also be aware of how the apps we use in our classes manage student information so we can make decisions accordingly. Common Sense Media has started doing privacy evaluations of a variety of learning tools and providing a rating depending on their data handling and privacy.

It is clear that online privacy concerns us all, and as such, teachers, parents and students should work hand in hand to navigate the different privacy issues that come with the use of social media and apps in and outside the classroom.


Featured image by Andrew Martin from Pixabay

3 thoughts on “The Fallacy of Online Privacy

  1. Hi Lina,

    Thank you so much for mentioning the “Terms of Service”. It’s a huge part of the privacy conversation but it is often overlooked because no one takes the time to read the fine print (and why would they?!).

    A high school student at my school recently did a survey of social media use among the middle and elementary kids and found that 98% never read terms of service and most don’t check out their settings after they download an app. Scary stuff, especially when you consider how many of them are well under the 13+ age limit.

    I love Common Sense Media so much and I’m really glad that you shared their privacy evaluations. I had no idea that they had started doing that! I will definitely be using it as a resource with students and parents.


    1. I also love that you shared the Common Sense Media privacy evaluations. I will be sharing that with my colleagues as well. Thanks for an informative post!


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