Learner Profiles: Middle School Learners and Technological Privacy

The purpose of this study was to identify trends of how Middle School students (age 11 to 14) are managing their privacy settings with regards to internet use within a divisional focus of our school. The aim of this study was to build a profile of middle school learners and determine if there were any differences with regards to internet privacy and sharing and to make recommendations to students, parents and teaching staff. Questions ranged from quantitative data such as what information they post on social networks, and qualitative data such as asking students to rate their privacy comfort. Naturally, we were interested in looking for discrepancies and stark differences in data samples such as students that posted a lot of information about themselves on social networks but were "very concerned" about what information they posted. This focus deals primarily with standards related to digital citizenship surrounding technology practice, ethical behavior, and responsibility. For more ICT standards, see the International Society for Technology in Education.

Case Studies
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Surveys about online use have typically focused on cyber bullying trends at our school. However, recent case studies have demonstrated that many digital immigrants (persons born before1980) are not aware of their privacy settings and their implications. It is our hypothesis that although digital natives (people born after 1980) have grown up in the internet age, they are more socially promiscuous with the amount of information that they share in an attempt to win friends and expand their social network. Other questions focused on whether students felt that they could access social networks while working in a public place in their house or if they needed privacy to do so.

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With companies like Google constantly updating and refining their privacy settings and employers using social media sites like Facebook for background checks in the hiring process, these questions seemed particularly relevant. The new norm with many careers requiring technical training and evaluation is on the rise, as is online recruiting and evaluation of a a candidate's digital footprint. Although middle school learners are years away from getting a job, many colleges start evaluating candidates during a student's junior year which gives 8th graders only a few years of content creation to build a good personal profile. Some students are combating this challenge by closing their old social media accounts and creating a more whitewashed, sanitized one to make them more marketable and cast themselves in a positive light.

The implications of this are far reaching. Students that say disparaging comments about others are opening themselves unwittingly for investigation and even disciplinary action. Such is the case of students that make disparaging comments about others in academic settings, and even cases of commenting on others outside of academic institutions. Although our school has an internet use policy which is signed by parents and students, some students are not aware that everything that they write creates a digital record that can be recorded with a screen shot, making its deletion impossible. With this phenomenon, the line is blurred between public and private, free speech and censorship and what should and shouldn't be posted on social networks. Here are our findings.

1.) Students usually put pictures of themselves and their friends on social networks. The most common information that students put on social networks was photos of friends followed by photos of themselves, their actual name and surprisingly, the name of their school. From a privacy standpoint, the name of a student's school may be information students should not post, but students did indicate that they did not divulge their home address, although one student did which is statistically irrelevant. One statistic that was interesting is that less than a quarter of students said they put their actual age online, perhaps to skirt minimum age requirements for social media sites like Facebook or to present themselves as more experienced.

Analysis: Because we are blogging at our school, it is encouraging that students are linking their digital footprint to their blog and 23% said that they have a link to their blog on social websites. Information that probably shouldn't be put online are their parent's names, phone numbers and IM screen names, but this is a low percentage of those surveyed. For parents who are country ambassadors or embassy members with heightened security settings, they may want to extra vigilant about the friends of their children who may who put pictures of their children online in an attempt to be social as 58% of respondents said that they posted pictures of friends.

2.) Students generally don't give out their username and password to access both school and social media sites. Roughly 80% said that they don't give this information to another student, but 22% of students said they have given information pertaining to school related websites compared to 13% who have given access to social websites.

Analysis: It's not surprising that students may give occasional access to their friends for a school related website if that friend lost a password or the teacher is unavailable, but one recommendation based on the fact that (13% of students have given access to friends to access media sites) is to present the case study of how giving friends access to personal websites can potentially invite embarrassing and joking comments posted from the behalf of a "friend".

3.) Students are generally not concerned with their privacy. The responses took on typical bell distribution curve but most students were not concerned at all. 

Analysis: Perhaps MS students are too young to understand the implications of privacy on the internet because they don't know it could be a hindrance in the future. Because they are not using it to get a job or apply for college, their general feelings about privacy concerns may not yet be realized.

4.) Most students put their personal information on Skype and Facebook. In the graph below, we thought that Facebook would be the most popular, followed by Twitter and then Google, so we were surprised that students are using the video conferencing tool "Skype" for their profile more than any other social media site.

Analysis: Although Skype can be used to socialize, it is starting to be used by students in schools around the world to discuss homework assignments and solve problems. Because 86% have information of themselves on Skype, we think that could be the most underutilized tool in education. Because so many students using Skype, there are a number of unrealized possibilities for learning such as video conferencing with professionals, crowd sourcing projects and transforming the online persona from mere lurkers to active participants.

5.) Students generally favor internet access from private locations in their house. A common complaint from both students and parents is the amount of time students spend on the internet doing school work. In extreme cases of homework neglect, meetings with parents have produced insights to students doing school work after or intermittently between skype and google chats with their friend. In a more real sense, they may be online for four hours, but actually doing school work for only 1 hour. Students often don't see the disparity.

Analysis: For parents, we think that this is the most insightful trend. Only a third of students do online school work in a public place in their house, mostly likely at the behest of their parents: "Get your homework done where I can see you Johnny an then you can go talk to your friends in your room". For students that have difficulty with time management and homework completion, parents may consider designating public work spaces in the house. Helping students access online organizational platforms like moodle and checking academic progress through powerschool can also aid learning expectations.

Final Note
Teaching students about privacy management can not fall solely on the shoulders of ICT teachers. All staff and parents should learn and teach students good digital citizenry to ensure good practice through many different contexts ranging from the core subjects to personal use. Staff and parents who build their own digital footprint through their own social network and build content through their own blog, youtube page, or other media site would naturally have a greater expertise in this matter and be more experienced in providing advice about digital privacy.

By Lisa Featherstone and Gary Johnston

Related Readings
Teens, Privacy and Online Social Networks-Pew Research

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