How educators can teach students about data privacy

January 25, 2023

As technology becomes increasingly prominent in the classroom and at home, adults and children alike find themselves frequently engaged in their devices. A 2021 report by Common Sense Media found that among children ages 8-12, 57% own a tablet and 43% own a smartphone.

Children are becoming more involved with technology at a younger age than ever. While there are many upsides to technology — such as connectedness, educational opportunities, and entertainment — it’s important to be aware of the risks as well. In today’s society, it's essential to equip children with knowledge about data privacy and online protection.

What is Data Privacy?

The Storage Networking Industry Association defines data privacy as an area of data protection that concerns the proper handling of sensitive data including personal data. Understanding and implementing data privacy practices can help protect individuals from the harmful consequences of data breaches and exploitation.

Websites and apps collect personal data from their users such as their name, location, birthday, occupation, address, payment methods, and more. Often, users are asked for this information when signing up for a new account, taking online quizzes, shopping online, playing games, and using apps. 

It may seem harmless, but providing websites with personal information can leave individuals vulnerable for cyberattacks and identity theft. Additionally, the data collected can be used to exploit children through online advertising.

Why is Data Privacy Important?

With even the best of intentions, parents and educators can put children’s information at risk. Many websites and applications intended for educational purposes collect data from underage users.

 The Human Rights Watch, a worldwide advocacy group, performed an analysis on educational apps and websites regarding data privacy for 164 different educational apps and websites across 49 countries. 

The results indicated that almost 90% of the educational apps and websites surveyed had features designed to collect information for the purpose of sharing it with advertising companies. This is an alarming statistic that emphasizes the risks children are exposed to when using technology.

While legislators and educational leaders are taking steps to increase data security in schools, online privacy continues to be a struggle. According to the K12 Security Information Exchange’s 2022 Annual Report, there have been 1,331 publicly disclosed cyber incidents affecting U.S. schools since 2016.

A reported 33% of these incidents were student data breaches. If these are the numbers for data breaches in education, just imagine how much greater the risk becomes when children use social media applications on their own personal devices.

Educators and parents will not always be able to fully prevent children’s personal information from being exposed. For this reason, it is crucial for educators to be intentional about teaching students how to protect their digital privacy.

This article will discuss various methods and strategies educators can use to teach students about data privacy and minimize their risks online.

How Can Educators Teach Students About Data Privacy?


Explicitly Teach Data Tracking Vocabulary Terms

From geometry to chemistry, academic concepts across the board require repeated, explicit teaching of vocabulary terms to support student mastery. This same concept applies when teaching students about key terms in data privacy. Whether you start out with a lesson introducing all of these, or you give each concept its own activity, here are a few vocabulary terms that educators should introduce to students:

Cookies: Cookies are small files of information that are passed from a website to a personal computer. This is often done without the user’s knowledge or consent. Stored cookies are intended to remember information like logins and preferences for the future, but the saved data can leave personal information vulnerable for breaches.

Behavioral Targeting: Behavioral targeting is an advertising technique that uses data and information about a user to create ads relevant to their interests.

According to Common Sense Media, “Behavioral profiling is particularly problematic for kids because it happens at a unique time of development — when both their brains and identities are developing and forming.”

Retargeting: Retargeting is an advertising technique that uses stored data (cookies) to identify a product or service that a user has looked at in the past. For example, if an underage user put a toy in an online shopping cart but did intend to complete the purchase (and may have misunderstood the purpose altogether), that child could be retargeted for that item.

An ad for a specific product may appear months later, guiding the child’s opinion about their wants and needs.

Biometrics: Biometrics is the process of identifying physical and behavioral characteristics. This is the technology behind features like facial recognition, digital fingerprints, digital signatures, and voice recognition.

The collection of biometric data allows for a more complete and accurate database of identity, which is why it’s crucial for youth to be cautious about who they share biometric data with. 

Machine Learning: Machine Learning is a branch of artificial intelligence that collects data to use for algorithms and decision making. The data collected over time contributes to the improvement of a machine or software’s decision-making process.

Digital Citizenship: Digital citizenship is the responsible use of technology to learn, create, and participate. Anyone who uses the internet is a digital citizen.

Digital Footprint: A digital footprint is the impact that your comprehensive online history (anything that you’ve ever posted online) leaves on you. This is one of the most important concepts for students to understand, emphasizing that once something is put online it is very hard to remove.

Explain the Difference Between Credible Information and Misinformation

A study conducted by Data Reportal reveals that Internet users between the ages of 16-64 spend an average of 6 hours and 37 minutes online each day. That’s over one third of the day spent scrolling, gaming, shopping, and browsing.

With so much time spent online, people are constantly being exposed to a plethora of information on varying topics. To prepare students to stay safe and informed while online, it’s important to teach them the difference between reliable information and misinformation.

A dangerous example of this phenomenon is the mental health content shared on TikTok. There is an influx of “mental health influencers” providing advice on the app, but research has revealed that around 84% of mental health videos on TikTok are misleading

Helping students understand how to differentiate quality information from misinformation can save them from potential harm when exposed to misinformation online. Educators should teach them to think critically about the source of information. Here are a few things to keep in mind:

  • Analyze the source’s credibility (i.e., is the content shared from Psychology Today or a Reddit thread?)

  • Consider the potential bias of the author

  • Always be cautious when content contains advertisements and affiliate links 

  • Beware of clickbait titles  

Additionally, the date and location of a source’s publication may impact its relevance to students. Teach these concepts and actively practice evaluating online information to ensure students are equipped with the skills to think critically for themselves.

Provide Opportunities for Students to Research Data Privacy

Hands-on learning is the most effective and relevant way for students to master concepts. Data privacy lends itself perfectly to hands-on, research-driven projects. Assigning a digital research project allows students to learn about data privacy while also practicing data privacy.

Teachers can assign students a topic from the key terms listed in this article and instruct them to research and investigate that term. Students can put together a research paper or a digital presentation such as Google Slides or PowerPoint and present their findings to the class. 

They could also do the same type of research project, focusing instead on the data privacy of a particular app. For example, a student may focus on investigating how Snapchat collects users’ data and what that data is used for.

Along the way, students will be judging the quality of online sources, practicing online safety, and building digital literacy skills. The presentations will also open classroom discussions that lead to meaningful conversations and memory retention.

Use Relatable Examples

Students learn best when they are engaged in content and find it relatable. Educators should take the complex concept of data privacy and find relevant, real-world ways to help students digest complicated terms. Here are a few examples of activities that students may find relevant.

Digital Footprint: Find a local news article about a person who lost their job, college acceptance, or scholarship due to something posted online. Review it in class to show a real-world example of a digital footprint’s impact.

Misinformation: Find or write an article that is blatantly false. This can even become a cross-curricular activity if you tie it into what students are currently learning about. Students will enjoy thinking critically as they move through the content and identify misinformation.

Behavioral Targeting & Retargeting: Ask students to keep a journal of online advertisements they encounter over the span of a week. Ask them to consider why they think they are seeing these ads and what type of advertising technique it may be. Students can share and discuss their answers in class.

Create Lesson Plans About Data Privacy

Data privacy is extremely important and should not be an afterthought for educators. It is important to plan for explicit teaching time and well-thought lessons to educate students on data privacy. 

Educators can create their own resources or use one of the many pre-made lessons available online. Here are a few high-quality websites that provide free resources for teaching data privacy.

Securing the Safety of Students

With so much time spent online, teaching data-privacy to students is non-negotiable. Students should understand when and how their data is being used. Luckily, online resources and innovative teaching practices make it easy for educators to equip students with the knowledge and critical thinking skills required to stay safe online.

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