For ParentsFor Teachers

Privacy is in the Eye of the Beholder

Blog4cby Lynette T. Owens

I know several parents who within the last year became frequent users and heavy recommenders of social networking sites.  Most use it as a way to stay in touch with far flung friends and relatives (to share photos and updates of their kids much of the time) and to feed their curiosity about old classmates or previous co-workers.  To a lesser extent or almost never do they use it to meet people unfamiliar to them.  According to research from the Pew Research Center, 89% of the more than 2200 adults surveyed use online social networks to connect with people they already know.   

But social networking sites are in essence a web of concentric circles, where your sphere of connections overlaps others’ to varying degrees but not completely.  For this reason, considering the implications of privacy for you and for anyone in your circle or your circle’s circle is an important issue.   Your definition of privacy may not be the same as others.

Last month, two teenage girls sued their high school for punishing them after they posted suggestive photos on their MySpace pages last summer, despite using the highest level of privacy settings for their profiles.  They assumed only those they allowed on the site could see it.  A reasonable assumption.

What led to the girls’ ultimate demise was a breach in trust.  Someone in their circle of ‘friends’ connected to their profile had access to the photos.  In turn, they showed them to others outside the circle, and eventually the pictures ended up in front of their high school principal. 

The school responded by preventing the girls, both student-athletes, from participating in extracurricular activities in the fall and made them apologize to the Athletics board and attend counseling sessions.  The school’s student handbook cites that student-athletes can be excluded from representing the school if their conduct in or out of school discredits the school in any way or is a disruptive influence to its environment.  In the lawsuit filed by the girls, the issue of civil liberties (freedom of speech/expression, specifically) is now in play.  Schools are questioning how to better define codes of conduct to include online activities.  And friends are reconsidering the barometers of trust they use to measure their relationships with others.

Regardless of how this case ends and which side you may take, there are many lessons to be learned immediately:  

  1. Using the highest privacy level settings in your social networking profile does not prevent people you have given privilege to see your posts from making them public. So always think before posting anything. Parents should advise their children of the dangers of posting personal things on the Web. They can use this case to show how managing privacy is first about making good choices and second about using technology to support those choices.  Parents should also set good examples.  Do not post photos or content that you or any of your friends or relatives would not want to be widely known or seen. 
  2. Privacy means different things to different people.  I was once asked permission by someone to post a picture of my kids online.  Given the context of the posting, I declined (it was too public in my opinion), but I appreciated being asked in the first place.  Schools require parents to complete a release form allowing them (or not) to take photographs of our kids for the purposes of promoting the school in various publicity materials.  Some parents have no issues with this, some parents do.  It is a matter of choice, and it should never be assumed that everyone feels the same about what is private and what is not.  Show kids how you value privacy and how to respect the privacy of others.
  3. Kids’ online safety and digital citizenship is the ultimate responsibility of the parents but they must guide their kids with the help of their school. In this case, while the teens made a poor choice of posting the photos in the first place, the incident may not have occurred if their parents and their school had warned them about the consequences of doing so.  It is unclear where the boundaries are or should be between parent and school, and what jurisdiction they each have over ensuring kids’ acceptable use of the Internet.  But rather than tackle it in isolation, a collaborative model would help address this more efficiently.  The case of the girls from Indiana highlights how the Internet is deeply woven into kids’ lives and why teaching digital citizenship needs to be a high priority for schools and parents. 

There are of course legal definitions and protections for you and your kids’ personal privacy, such as when you share health records with the school.  But privacy on social networking sites is a different matter.  The good news is that protecting your privacy is largely in yours and your kids’ own control.   Despite all the heat that social networking sites receive for improving their privacy control capabilities, technology can never be a replacement for good judgment.

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