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Kids and Online Privacy

By Lynette T. Owens

Ambient broadcasting.  This was a phrase used to describe how ‘millenials’ – those born after 1980 – view sharing personal information online in a recent report by the Pew Center.  I thought it a very accurate description of what all of us, young and old, are doing on social networks, blogs, comment sections on websites, or message boards on a regular basis and for any purpose.

Why? Because as respondents of the study mused “publicity will replace privacy” and “sharing is the new normal.”  For today’s youth, striving for acceptance among peers means tending to an online persona as they do their real selves.  And while divulging some personal information online is necessary to stay connected to people online, partake in an online gaming community or find others who have similar likes or dislikes, there are also more practical reasons kids share as much as they do.

Impressing a college recruiter might include starting a blog, website, online cause, or amassing a following of any kind online (for almost any reason).  Finding a job sometimes requires uploading a resume to a job search site and reaching out online to companies or individuals that may lead them to employment.

But while all of this is true, privacy in an online world requires us to teach kids about more than just resisting the need to share too much.  In the wake of the case of Tyler Clementi, the Rutgers University freshman who committed suicide after his roommate broadcast over the Internet his intimate encounters via a hidden webcam, there is a renewed urgency in reminding and educating kids about not just one’s own privacy but that of another’s.  When we talk about online privacy to them, we need to help them understand how to maintain privacy, what to expect others to do with their privacy, and how to respect the privacy of others.

Managing our own privacy

Most parents already advise their kids about never giving out too much information (or talking) to strangers.  Parents instinctively also guide their kids about the same online.  The hardest part is helping kids recognize beforehand when they might be sharing ‘TMI’, or too much information.  Part of maintaining privacy online is using features (privacy settings) and technologies (security software) that can help put walls up around their personal information, but those walls are not always impenetrable.  So the safest and best life-skill to teach them is to exercise good judgment before they ever put anything out there.  For my kids, the test is “if it’s something you wouldn’t tell the neighborhood, don’t share it.”

Protecting our right to privacy

If kids choose to share information willingly, they need to understand and be prepared for the consequences.  If they don’t choose to share it, no one else should.  Part of the answer here is to teach kids their legal right to privacy, and the other part is to help them understand that they may have (possibly unknowingly) given up that right.  This often times happens when, in the rush to register on a new music-sharing or social networking site, they gloss over the terms of use and privacy policies, and scroll right down to the “I understand and accept” button.  In doing so, they relinquish some control over their personal information and to their surprise, may be impacted by this through unwanted communication from advertisers or surreptitious reporting to 3rd parties of every thing they do online.

In a U.S. poll published today by Common Sense Media concerning attitudes about online privacy, a majority of kids and parents think their personal information is not secure on places like social networking sites and feel that they should give permission before their information is shared with anyone else.  Both groups also had issues with the length and inscrutability of privacy policies and terms of use, with 85% of kids stating they would take the time to read them if they were more clear and concise.  Until such changes, however, kids should know what their rights to privacy are and to ask an adult if they are unsure whether or not to trust a site before entering any personal information on it. 

Respecting others’ privacy

In the process of teaching kids to protect their own privacy, we should also remind them to respect that of others.  While the Tyler Clementi case is being viewed as a cyberbullying case by some, it is fundamentally a case of gross invasion of privacy with the worst possible consequences.  Whatever the motivation by the fellow students charged in the case, they clearly engaged in an illegal act.  And beyond the legal boundaries, it was simply immoral and unethical.  At a minimum, and as part of any effort to teach kids to be good digital citizens, we need to remind them to treat people online as they would in person.  Helping them develop empathy in an online world may be far more difficult since others may not (and may never) be visible to them (or they to others).  But as with their own personal information (and lives), if someone doesn’t want to share it, it shouldn’t be shared.

The Internet has changed the boundaries of what younger generations deem private, and we are all learning how to balance the exchange of personal information for some desired benefit.  Ultimately, as is the case with many other facets of teaching kids to be safe online, both technology and awareness will go a long way to helping them understand, protect, and respect privacy in an online world.

For more safety tips and advice, go to

For the complete poll on privacy from Common Sense Media, go to

Tags :cyberbullyingdigital citizenshipeducationinternet safetykidsonline privacyonline safetyright to privacyRutgerssocial networkingteensTyler Clementi

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