This result may explain generational differences in use of social media platforms, as young people adapt to find their own spaces and compartmentalize the different aspects of their lives online. As parents and other authority figures become more active on social media, particularly Facebook, and monitor students’ activities, young people feel compelled to move to other platforms where they can better protect their privacy. danah boyd, a researcher focusing on teenagers’ use of social media, noted, “I see quotes over and over again from young people saying, ‘Why are [adults on my social media site]? They don’t belong here. Don’t they understand?’ Or, ‘I wouldn’t look at their content; why are they looking at mine?’”26
This insight suggests that while college students tend to prioritize privacy in their academic and professional lives, they still care deeply about protecting themselves from privacy violations outside of school and work. For example, most college-age Facebook users are friends with family members and other adults, such as teachers. Therefore, these users likely filter the information they post on Facebook, in contrast to other platforms. In the above-mentioned study of Facebook use among college students, “[m]ost participants were friends with family members and felt that if posted content was appropriate for family to see it was appropriate for everyone.” A 20-year-old female participant stated, “I am friends with my mom on Facebook so I guess I am okay with my mom seeing it.”27
Document dropping is an increasingly common form of cyber harassment about which young people express concern. This occurs when a digital antagonist gains access to personal documents––typically financial records, medical records, home addresses, phone numbers, or information about family members––and publishes them online. This practice is so pervasive that millennial and Gen Z users have dubbed it “doxing.” High-profile doxing, such as the Gamergate scandal, has contributed to a sentiment of fear among young people online.28 Aviva, a 23-year-old participant in the above-noted study by Marwick and colleagues, identified doxing as her greatest fear online. She is careful to keep a low profile on social media and is highly protective of information such as her address or phone number. In her words, “You see people getting doxed and that makes you realize how easy it is for people to get to your information. So you really do have to be very careful about who you talk to, and what you present online.”29
Negative effects of college admissions officers and potential employers discovering compromising information on social media profiles are more likely than being the victim of doxing or identity theft. The outcome of the latter is much worse, however, as students may suffer constant psychological, emotional, and even physical harassment or bear the reputational, financial, and perhaps criminal costs of someone having stolen their identity. Young people express keen awareness of this personal risk.
College students expect boundaries between their personal and academic lives and want universities to use their data predominantly for educational (or health and safety) purposes.
A 2015 EDUCAUSE report on undergraduate students’ views of information technology found that more than three-fourths of students approved of colleges’ data collection for analytics when used for “progress toward your degree or certificate goal,” and most approved of such collection for assessing course performance. However, less than half of the students approved of data collection to analyze students’ campus-based activities logged through their IDs, smart cards, or smartphones; one-third approved of geolocation data collection; and one-quarter approved of data collection to analyze their social media activities.30
Another interview-based study by Jones et al. confirmed this preference, finding that students felt that universities’ data collection was justified if the data was used only for educational purposes. One participant stated, “if they had the intention of using my data to create better programs or better educational tools, then I’m all for it.”31 Another participant supported this view: “I feel that if they’re using data altruistically in a sense to better the experience for every student as a whole, then I feel that I can see it as a positive endeavor… a win for everybody.”32 However, the study also revealed that students were generally unaware of which information their schools collected and for what purposes.
As one student in New America and NASPA’s focus groups stated, “I don’t think I’m necessarily concerned about my institution’s use of data privacy; I haven’t really thought a lot about it. Because it’s really not in my face often.”33 However, when questioned about their institutions’ increased monitoring of students’ locations for COVID-19-related health and safety purposes, students voiced privacy and equity concerns. One respondent noted, “It would sort of be very alarming to me [if my school traced my location]….I think in the era of COVID, we’re asked that type of question on a daily [basis] of how much [privacy] are you willing to give away in order to maintain a sense of safety.”34 Another respondent also wanted their institution to enact guardrails for location data privacy: “There’d have to be a clear end. I wouldn’t want that to continue after the pandemic so [there would need to be] transparency between the university and the students about when that data will stop being collected…and how they’re getting rid of that information afterwards.”35
Even during the pandemic, which has blurred the lines between students’ personal and academic lives, students expect institutions to respect their privacy and to commit to ethical, equitable data practices.
Students expressed varying degrees of concern in the face of institutions’ increased monitoring of students’ social media activities, to ensure adherence to COVID-19 safety protocols. One student viewed it as “a complete violation,” asserting, “Your private social media is your private social media,”36 whereas others made an exception for health and safety reasons. As one student put it, “I don’t think it makes sense for them to go on social media, unless they have a case that has like been confirmed….I think if there’s a party, and there’s an instance where you need to have proof [or] you need to know who else was there, it might make sense to go on someone’s account and ask their permission to see their account, if it’s private. Otherwise, I don’t really see why they need to be lurking on social media.”37
Thus, even during the pandemic, which has blurred the lines between students’ personal and academic lives, students expect institutions to respect their privacy and to commit to ethical, equitable data practices.
Mostly consistent with these findings, a 2016 German study reported that 82 percent of students agreed to share their course enrollment data, 78 percent agreed to share their learning strategies test results, and 75 percent agreed to share their motivation test results for learning analytics purposes. In contrast, 92 percent of students were unwilling to share their medical data, 91 percent were unwilling to share their income, 90 percent were unwilling to share their social media data, and 87 percent were unwilling to share their marital status.38 This and the other studies noted above suggest that college students require a clear relationship between the information their institutions collect and its use for educational purposes.
Notably, most students were willing to share their social emotional learning survey results, which may be considered highly sensitive information, but were uncomfortable sharing much-less sensitive social media information. Therefore, the types of information college students seek to protect appears to depend heavily on the context of use, not solely the sensitivity of the information.
A survey of college students’ perceptions of risk on Facebook and other online settings confirmed the importance of context. More than 90 percent of the survey’s 3,000 respondents listed their full names on Facebook, approximately 70 percent listed their birth date, approximately 70 percent listed their email address, more than 85 percent listed their hometowns, and almost 100 percent posted photos of themselves. However, only 10–14 percent listed their current address, and less than 30 percent listed their current phone number.39 While differing norms of engagement exist in schools and on social media, the question remains why college students choose to share certain information in some contexts and not others. Thus, further research on the differences between acceptable disclosure in academic and personal settings is necessary.
College students care more about protecting immutable identifiers, such as biometric information, in higher education contexts.
Unfortunately, research is lacking on which personal identifiers US college students believe require the most protection. However, studies suggest that college students prioritize protecting immutable identifiers, such as biometric information, from their education institutions. A comparative study of college students in China and Japan found that in an e-learning context, students considered their personal photos, mobile phone numbers, and physical addresses to be very private and were reluctant to submit this information to e-learning systems. However, they did not consider age, personal URLs, birthplace, instant messenger IDs, or email addresses to be sensitive information.40
Students have also mobilized to prevent schools and governments from adopting privacy-invasive systems that use biometric information. Erica Darragh, a student at the University of North Georgia, is part of a campaign to ban facial recognition on college campuses. In an article published on Vice, she wrote:
“We have already given up so much privacy and liberty for the sake of “security,” but facial recognition must be where this stops. Facial recognition does not improve security and may actually make it worse. It’s also a technology that, once mainstreamed, can never be taken back. It is fundamentally coercive for educational institutions to require students to participate in biometric surveillance in order to attend class. While we wait for the government to ban facial recognition at the federal level, young people can take control of the narrative and demand policies that ban the technology in school districts and on college campuses.”41