Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Youth Online Privacy and the Paradox of Protection

   As the Internet has grown to be a hegemonic feature of the lives of most people in the developed world, we have come to hear a great deal about the need to protect the online privacy of young people. The specter of pedophiles and others that supposedly seek to prey on children is invoked to justify yet more onerous restrictions on the right of young people to take advantage of the many positive opportunities for friendship, education, and entertainment that the Internet affords to people of all ages. These restrictions, we are told, will protect young people from potentially sharing incriminating information about themselves that could hurt them with employers, educators and admissions officers in academic programs, and others. We are also informed that these restrictions protect young people from adults (like the aforementioned child predators) or other young people (like students at their school who may wish them ill) who may seek to harm them in some way.

   Parallel to this development is another interesting trend taking place. This trend is not discussed in the same tone of public concern and outrage as that expressed by those talking about the former issues, although it is far more pervasive and I would argue more damaging in many cases to young people because it involves a breach of their trust by people they should ideally be able to rely upon. The trend to which I refer is that of parents sharing damaging and confidential information about their children online.

   The Liza Long incident, which has generated widespread public interest, is of course an extreme example. Few parents take to the web to compare their children to mass murderers. But all too many parents, including those who love their children and claim they wish to protect them, take an all too casual attitude to sharing embarrassing or even damaging personal information about their children online. Because the children have no choice in who their parents are; because they have no legal recourse to demand that these violations of their privacy cease; because many members of the public do not even acknowledge the harm accruing to these youth - I would argue that this is a far more oppressive phenomenon than the ones typically brought up when our society discusses issues of young people's online privacy.

   Much of what we see parents doing to violate their children's privacy rights does not strike us as all that problematic at first glance as it has become increasingly common due to the rise of online forums, social media websites, blogs, and the like. Nonetheless, if we attempt to see things through the eyes of the child, we would rightly find much of this appalling. No one would want pictures of them crying while getting a shot at the doctor's office, for example, shared widely on Facebook with people that are no more than mere acquaintances of their parents. No one would want people they live with and rely upon for emotional, financial, and other types of support to share anecdotes about them on a blog which paint them at their worst.

   It seems to me that our society has struck fundamentally the wrong balance when it comes to protecting young people's rights online and it is a balance that, as it stands now, has far more to do with controlling youth than with protecting young people from the most serious breaches of confidentiality and some of the most problematic types of harm. Through age restrictions on social media websites, Internet filters, and the like we impede the ability of young people to make new friends, learn new things, and derive enjoyment from the online world. At the same time, we allow parents and other adults in a child's life (some, although by no means all, teachers will take to social media websites to share unflattering information about their students) to potentially damage their children's reputations and betray their trust while we sit idly by. This is the wrong calculation.

   Social media can be a wonderful tool for parents. They can share pride in a child's accomplishments and with that child's consent, both parent and child can enjoy the positive feedback they get from friends, relatives, and others. They can help their child to keep in touch with family friends and relatives around the world who can develop a connection with the child as he or she grows up that would have been impossible in days past. All of these things are positive developments for people of all ages and this blog post is by no means an indictment of them. However, when sharing information about a child that could be potentially damaging or embarrassing or that simply divulges information the child does not want shared with whomever it is being shared with, we need to respect that boundary. We talk a lot about protecting children from random people on the Internet. Perhaps we need to talk a lot more about protecting children from their web savvy parents. Until we are willing to do so, it is obvious that we are much more interested in controlling young peoples' online interactions than we are in protecting them in any meaningful sense.

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