Just Say No to ‘Just Say No’ — Research on Youth and Privacy in the Americas

This post is a contribution from Mariel García-Montes, a tech capacity builder and researcher on youth, media, and privacy at the Berkman Klein Center for Internet and Society at Harvard University.


The official job description for the first five years of my career was “technological capacity building” in non-profit organisations in Mexico and Latin America, a role where I witnessed relationships between technology and society across different campaigning groups. This is how I first encountered the strong tensions between youth and children’s organisations and those who work on digital rights more broadly. Such tensions inspired the research I share in this text.

The tensions

I saw youth and children’s rights organisations advocate for stronger regulation and law enforcement capacities to keep minors safe online, while digital rights organisations pointed out the ways this infrastructure would not yield positive results for youth and children, and would moreover be used to silence dissent and harm activists.

Whereas there is little written evidence of this antagonism on the side of organisations, one of the individuals I interviewed for my research, Mariana Valente from InternetLab, a research organisation in Brazil, articulated two elements of this tension very eloquently:

“A few years ago, when we were speaking about digital rights and the role of most civil society organisations was to defend free speech or privacy online, it was as if you would not understand the other side of the table: police worrying about child pornography. [So] On one side, it was about prosecution of crimes online, the side of the police; and on the other, organisations trying to make the point that the internet was not all about crime — on the contrary, it was a place for the enjoyment of rights, the digital rights organisations side. Going for child rights was a way to bring authoritarian policies to the internet.”

It is easy to concede that what digital rights organisations perceive as an authoritarian agenda was conceived by well-meaning adults who wanted to protect children. Their messaging often relied on discourse such as stranger danger, Just Say No, Think Before you Sext . But I wondered: is this prohibitive messaging the only way to address youth and privacy online, or are there other frames and programming that we could use to advance both children’s rights and digital rights at large?

Preserving children's agency

Whether we are technology capacity builders, media-makers or researchers, if we commit to investing ourselves in the dismantling of oppressions, we need to engage in initiatives where youth are recognised as subjects with specific developmental needs, but also with agency. We do not need to take choices away from them. We need initiatives where youth are not just potential citizens in the future but are seen as subjects of rights today.

Those rights include the right to safety, privacy, and sexual and reproductive health. We need to shift the focus from individual actions to collective responsibilities and understand the companies and regulators that surround youth in every breach of privacy. We need to work towards a vision where technology, regulation, and practices are aligned both with human rights, including those of children and youth—especially those of marginalised individuals who have been targeted by surveillance structures put in place for the sake of ‘protecting youth’.

With this vision in mind, I interviewed eighteen organisations in twelve countries in the Americas, from Canada to Argentina. The participating organisations set good examples of what agency-promoting, intersectional, rights-based privacy work that emphasises collective responsibility already looks like in practice.

The different approaches

Agency-based work promotes youth decision-making. And the way organisations carry this commitment through their programming is by using codesign, a participatory design methodology that can be used to involve children in the creation process; they also do it by enabling institutional youth involvement. Faro Digital’s speculative codesign workshops in Argentina get children to identify problems and propose solutions to the technologies in their everyday lives, which enables conversations on privacy and safety, including on sexting, bullying, and grooming. The eQuality Project at the University of Ottawa has a youth advisory board, accompanied by intentional guiding principles. Similarly, Hiperderecho in Peru has a youth league.

Intersectional work focuses on the most harmed youth and supports their forms of creative resistance. Focusing on gender, TEDIC held a digital security workshop with trans women in Paraguay to make sense of the implications of real name policies and sex apps; Faro Digital and Pensamiento Colectivo host discussions on the gendered implications of sexting in Argentina and Uruguay. Paying special attention to class, Derechos Digitales’ research showed class divides in privacy behaviours among children in Brazil.

Rights-based approaches require us to look at current technical, political (and organisational!) structures through the lens of children’s rights. This can be done through the analysis of the implications of legislation and judicial proceedings for youth and children. This approach is present in research by Derechos Digitales and Datos Protegidos on youth privacy practices in Chile to advocate for the inclusion of their rights and needs in data protection legislation, which highlighted the importance of expanding on children’s concepts of personal data and consent and Article 12’s work for youth-friendly privacy notices in Mexico.

Finally, collective responsibility is a response to victim-blaming advocacy. It is not just about advising parents or children on individual behaviours, but addressing the structures around them. Some programmatic work aims to emphasise the sociotechnical structures at play, such as TEDIC’s campaigns on state surveillance and corporate data practices in Paraguay, and iCanHelpline and Safernet’s intermediation between social media companies and users through their internet helpline services. Some also promote intergenerational dialogue, as we can see in Red PaPaz’s training for parents on ways they can speak with their own children about technology.

Refocusing the approach

Continuing to do youth advocacy from a protective stance that overlooks agency might be well-intended, but can be ineffective and harmful. Protection has been particularly harmful to young people who are marginalised in terms of race, gender identity, sexual orientation, class, and/or other axes of power. Individualistic approaches also place the burden of action on youth who are already in marginalised positions. The consequences of advocacy on sexual content and privacy are gendered, and asking girls not to share their content feeds into the culture of victim-blaming (like asking women not to wear miniskirts).

Going forward, I aim to continue this line of research to help address some of the gaps that became apparent in the field: lack of unity on digital citizenship initiatives in the region, the lack of cooperation with the formal education system, and the lack of independent evaluations among all interventions. I also hope to collaborate with organisations like CRIN to help revitalise the discussions on children's rights and technology.

To get (free) access to all of Mariel's research outputs, you can visit her research page on the MIT Comparative Media Studies website.


Please note that these reports are hosted by CRIN as a resource for Child Rights campaigners, researchers and other interested parties. Unless otherwise stated, they are not the work of CRIN and their inclusion in our database does not necessarily signify endorsement or agreement with their content by CRIN.