DISSERTATION - Reframing debates on youths’ privacy


Foto-Tom.jpgOn 18 May 2022, Tom De Leyn successfully defended his doctoral manuscript entitled Reframing debates on youths' privacy: Towards an understanding of how young people’s privacy practices unfold at the nexus of mobile youth culture and socio-cultural discourses on age to obtain a doctoral degree in Communication Sciences. A summary of his findings are listed below.

The advent of mobile media and its widespread adoption by young people has led to paradoxical concerns among parents, educators, scholars, and the general public with regard to youth’s online privacy. On the one hand, there are fears that youths are at a greater risk of becoming victims of privacy violations, for instance in the context of non-consensual sexting and cyberbullying or in interactions with tech-savvy predators and commercial data driving companies. On the other hand, there are concerns that young people themselves erode the notion of privacy by acting ‘unfiltered’ on social media and by being too connected to a digital world while being too detached from their physical surroundings and relations. Over the years, however, empirical studies have undeniably illustrated that young people do care about privacy and that they actively protect boundaries around the private self. Even more so, it is suggested that youths do not appropriate mobile media in an unreflective and random manner but, rather, that their negotiations between disclosure and concealment support developmental trajectories.

While these insights are essential in debunking common misconceptions about mobile youth culture, Tom De Leyn argues in his dissertation that the dominance of socio-psychological perspectives on youth comes with three limitations: Namely (1) that the voices of youth are heard, but their socio-cultural constellations are generally disregarded; (2) that technopanic narratives are refuted but not addressed; and finally (3) that privacy management is investigated, but its neoliberal connotation is not questioned. To reframe the current debates on youths’ privacy within mobile media environments, Tom De Leyn therefore suggests to adopt a perspective that takes into account how the category of youth is socio-culturally constructed. In particular, he examines how young people’s privacy perceptions and practices take shape at the nexus of mobile youth culture and socio-cultural discourses on age. By doing so, the dissertation critically interrogates the appropriateness of neoliberal notions of privacy perpetuated in the scholarship.


  • In the first interview study, the dissertation explores how 9 – 12 year-old tweens and their parents perceive risks and opportunities on TikToK, including their privacy perceptions and practices. The results illustrate how experiences of tweenhood construct TikTok as a liminal networked public that is in-between child’s play and teenage pop culture. This construction in turn informs how tweens’ privacy is conceptualized and managed. While parents did not report to be worried about their children’s present disclosure behaviors, they did convey anxieties over the anticipated evolution of this behavior when their children would transition into ‘real’ adolescents. The tweens on the other hand illustrated that they are able to reflect on privacy issues although that they sometimes stated that their privacy management decisions were informed by fears over the potential punishment by parents. Overall, this study argues against individual notions of privacy management as it illuminates how privacy practices and discourses are informed by socio-cultural norms, values and assumptions on what it means to be a child, teenager, and adult.


  • The second study draws from in-depth interviews with teenagers between 16 and 18 years old to scrutinize how teens themselves perceive and experience media literacy discourses and initiatives. The results suggest that teenagers primarily have a risk discourse in mind when talking about media literacy. Contextualizing these perceptions, it became clear that both the public discourse and media literacy initiatives largely draw from protectionist approaches. Finally, the analysis unearthed how teenagers spontaneously connect media literacy to (social) privacy risks. More specifically, the second study illustrates how youths experience and internalize dominant privacy discourses in which teens are portrayed as reckless and naïve. The female participants in particular reported feelings of anxieties over content that they disclose on social media due to the proliferation of victimization narratives about non-consensual sexting and cyberbullying.


  • The final study draws from a 15 month offline/online ethnographic fieldwork among ethno-religious minority youths. Tom De Leyn participated in the everyday lives of these young people by taking up the role of a volunteer youth worker. This way, he was able to connect these youths’ mobile media practices to their everyday experiences with racism and discrimination. The results show how ethno-religious minority young men display their relationship maintenance behaviors to a wider audience on Instagram stories. The semi-public display of these interactions is conceptualized as networked gift-giving which is defined in the dissertation as “the mutual exchange of user-generated content that amplifies the visibility of relationship maintenance and self-presentation in networked environments” (p. 53). Moreover, the ethnographic study uncovered how ethno-religious minority youths strictly curate their social media profiles in ways that present themselves as popular and masculine. These self-presentation practices can be understood as a strategy to overcome stigmatizing narratives inscribed on ethno-religious minorities. Overall, Tom De Leyn argues that negotiations between disclosure and concealment occur in reference to these youths’ peer networks as well as to their awareness of racist representations prevalent in Flemish society.


This dissertation was funded by FWO – the Research Foundation – Flanders


Read the dissertation here or contact Tom De Leyn