Dealing with Teens and Online Privacy Issues


Recently in a middle school poster contest, an eleven-year-old won with her very clear, very concise and very true words emblazoned in bold lettering: The Internet is public; The Internet is forever. She also wore the words painted on her t-shirt and it had many participants and educators talking. If her words rang so true, why do some teen still expect a degree of privacy in such a vast world of technology invading their daily existence, and should they?

Often parents are faced with the insistence from their teens: “I want more privacy”. This used to mean a private place to talk on the phone, or insisting a visitor knocks before entering a closed bedroom door. But today, teens are talking about more freedom with their technology devices. They don’t want parents to know their passwords on Facebook and Twitter, or to “friend” them and know their communication with others is being monitored. It used to be relatively easy to monitor browsing when the family computer was in a centralized location. But with all the handheld devises today, teens can get online anywhere – on the bus, at the mall, and even alone I their “private space” bedrooms.

Advocates of effective parenting skills insist that parents or guardians always be aware of all their child’s passwords, access, user identifications and anything else as they navigate the online world. When a teen refuses monitoring, that’s usually a good sign it needs to be watched. We want to trust our children, and to help them to grow to behave like responsible adults, but his trust can be risky. The Internet provides plenty of instant risk, as easy as pushing a button.

Technocracy writer and advocate Phil Elmore makes some serious points about how much privacy to allow your child with regards to using the Internet, particularly surfing sites that are inappropriate, violent and pornographic. “The solution is NOT to throw up your hands and decide that, if they’re going to do it, they might as well do it in the safety of your home. That’s weak parenting. It’s the abdication of your responsibility. You MUST do everything you can to slow them down, to monitor as much as possible, even if you can’t stop them completely and you can’t see it all.” He makes parents aware, as does Julie Rovolo, writing for Forbes, who contends: “pornography comprises fully 4 percent of all websites. That number may not impress you until you consider just how many websites there are. There are perhaps a trillion websites on the Internet.” Pornography is the most prolific of Internet material your child will likely encounter, often without your monitoring.

At school, teachers and administrators also want to develop a degree of trust among the students with regards to appropriate use of the Internet and degrees of privacy. A degree of respect for the world of the teenager and a striving to change the environment that helps educate young people should include more understanding about what and how they think, feel and act. Teens in particular will always seek privacy as they explore their world without the watchful eyes of adults.

Elementary Principal and education blogger Peter deWitt points out four categories that help break down the need for privacy in the age of social media. The first of these is Persistence; knowledge that teens have that today everything has the capability of being recorded and retrieved …and can linger, or haunt forever. Secondly he discusses Replicability, which we know as the simple ability to cut, paste, record, and plagiarize. Teachers have had to teach the use of a plagiarism checker as an assessing tool more regularly. Thirdly, Search-ability make the whole world visible and content readily accessible. And finally, Scale-ability he defines as the scope of sharing, and the infinity of an audience. Social media, especially for teens, makes this the fastest form of gossip available.

There is room for all this technology in education, even if at times it can feel invasive to students and educators alike. Teens in particular can be taught that they can choose, through their words, what they want to privatize, and what they want to publicize. They are keenly aware that their schools and homes are under the watchful eyes of adult, controlled situations, but within these walls there are still places where privacy can be granted.

Social media may blur what is public and what is private, as communication always has been. Privacy can also be attained to some degree through control of situations. Even in a place as public as shopping mall, a teen will feel they can have a private conversation without scrutiny, perhaps more than in the privacy of their own home. As tech research Danah Boyd summarizes, and perhaps may be the next poster published by a middle-schooler : “The Internet is Public by default, Private by Effort”.

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