Researchers from Deakin University and Monash University have developed a smartphone app that shows young people how their personal information can be harvested by social media.
The authors of the study held discussions with 27 high school-aged participants, aged between 13-17 years, to uncover their concerns around social media, data collection and online privacy. These findings were then compared with the young people’s views after seeing how their data was used.
The group agreed to use the researchers’ app, named PDQ, over a 7-day period. The app reflected typical data-mining techniques, and allowed users to see what information was held about them.
The app tracked where they went, analysed the faces of people in pictures they uploaded to guess at their emotions, and analysed text for references to events, documents and people.
Lead author, Dr Luci Pangrazio of Deakin University, said that before using the app, participants were most concerned about friends and peers seeing personal posts and conversations, technology companies tracking their data, and dangerous strangers online such as hackers and paedophiles.
They were also aware of issues relating to cyberbullying and addiction. They showed some concern about what friends of friends might do with anything they posted online, however saw their loss of control of this information as inevitable, and were confident they could block or ignore “randoms” who tried to add them.
While participants revealed mistrust for online companies’ intentions, most admitted to not reading terms and conditions. They felt they had no real choice, since they were obliged to use the same apps to maintain relationships.
After participants had used the app, the researchers ran workshops to discuss their reactions, to enhance their understanding of data gathering, and to support them in creating strategies to protect their personal data.
While remaining uncertain of what to do, the young people involved in the research were more aware of the consequences of data-mining after the workshops, and interested in changing their habits to be more secure online.
Dr Pangrazio said her main purpose was to demystify social media data to empower young people to make informed decisions in the digital economy.
In her view, it is valuable for classrooms to have discussions of digital literacy that go beyond the important issues of cyberbullying and safety. Social media is often “a very individualised experience,” she said. “Opening up that space to talk about these issues is really powerful.”
But Dr Pangrazio said her research also shows there are social and technical obstacles to individuals controlling their online data. While this might appear as “apathy”, she said it is better seen as a sense of “powerlessness” due to data-mining’s complexity and lack of transparency – suggesting that regulation must be part of any realistic solution.