Young people online and the social value of privacy

Valerie Steeves (Department of Criminology, University of Ottawa, Ottawa, Canada)
Priscilla Regan (Department of Public and International Affairs, George Mason University, Fairfax, Virginia, USA)

Journal of Information, Communication and Ethics in Society

ISSN: 1477-996X

Publication date: 4 November 2014



The purpose of this paper is to develop a conceptual framework to contextualize young people’s lived experiences of privacy and invasion online. Social negotiations in the construction of privacy boundaries are theorized to be dependent on individual preferences, abilities and context-dependent social meanings.


Empirical findings of three related Ottawa-based studies dealing with young people’s online privacy are used to examine the benefits of online publicity, what online privacy means to young people and the social importance of privacy. Earlier philosophical discussions of privacy and identity, as well as current scholarship, are drawn on to suggest that privacy is an inherently social practice that enables social actors to navigate the boundary between self/other and between being closed/open to social interaction.


Four understandings of privacy’s value are developed in concordance with recent privacy literature and our own empirical data: privacy as contextual, relational, performative and dialectical.

Social implications

A more holistic approach is necessary to understand young people’s privacy negotiations. Adopting such an approach can help re-establish an ability to address the ways in which privacy boundaries are negotiated and to challenge surveillance schemes and their social consequences.


Findings imply that privacy policy should focus on creating conditions that support negotiations that are transparent and equitable. Additionally, policy-makers must begin to critically evaluate the ways in which surveillance interferes with the developmental need of young people to build relationships of trust with each other and also with adults.



Steeves, V. and Regan, P. (2014), "Young people online and the social value of privacy", Journal of Information, Communication and Ethics in Society, Vol. 12 No. 4, pp. 298-313.

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