Children, Parents, and Privacy

The issue of privacy has confronted us in a number of ways recently.  A major controversy has raged as a result of numerous national security leaks, which raised the question of the need to balance security with privacy.  Another ongoing discussion relates to the question of privacy and social media.  One aspect of this has been whether children are able to appreciate the risks involved in their self-exposure on sites such as Facebook.  What seems “cool” now may come back to haunt them later on in college or employment applications. 

Of increasing concern to parents, has been children’s exposure to others on the internet, which leaves them open to cyber-bullying, or vulnerable to undesirable, inappropriate approaches from others.  Here, too, is the conflict between privacy and security.  Parents feel the need, and the responsibility, to monitor their children’s online communications, while at the same time feeling conflicted about invading their children’s privacy.  Children, on the other hand, are quick to assert their “need”, (and to them their “right”) to privacy.

In the midst of this, a leading children’s advocacy group is challenging the educational technology software industry to develop national safeguards for the personal data collected about students from kindergarten through high school.  The group, Common Sense Media, is urging the industry to use student data only for educational purposes, and not for marketing products to children or their families.

Some years ago, a well-known American historian and social critic, Christopher Lasch, wrote a book called, “Haven in a Heartless World”, discussing the American family in the twentieth century.  The “haven” he referred to was the family, and the “heartless world” was what he saw as the post industrial revolution disintegration of society.  His argument was that social science “experts” were intruding more and more into our lives, which was undermining the family’s important role as the moral cornerstone of society.  He felt this way especially about educators and psychologists taking over the role of parents in deciding what is best for children.

Even Lasch might be astonished by the intrusions caused by modern technological advances, although perhaps he would have viewed this as the logical outcome of diminished parental control.  Specifically, it seems that schools increasingly are using digital technologies to collect a great deal of information about students, with the goal of achieving personalized, data-driven education that may improve graduation rates and career prospects.

Whatever the goal, in reality student assessment software is being used without placing sufficient restrictions on the use of children’s personal details.  All of us who use the internet are aware that if we search for information, or engage in certain  transactions, we will soon be bombarded with advertisements of products and services relating in some way to our activities.  In the same way, school districts may share student’s details with vendors who perform institutional functions without notifying parents or getting their consent.

For example, details like children’s contact information, or where they wait for buses, may be part of bus company contracts without provisions to protect these details.  Also,  certain contracts for cafeteria services would allow companies to share or sell information about everything a student buys and eats at school.  The potential is there for such information to be used to target advertisements.

Schools are required by law to obtain parents’ permission before sharing information in children’s records.  However, updated Education Department rules allow schools to disclose student information to contractors and other outside parties to whom they outsource school functions, without notifying parents.   

Now, along comes the news that Facebook is easing privacy rules for teenagers.  This means that anything posted, status updates, videos and images, can be seen by anyone, not just friends or those who know their friends.  This, too, is a matter of marketing, providing more information to advertisers in order to better reach young consumers.

Targeting advertising to children has for some time been a problem for parents, leading to struggles around children’s requests for products that are made to seem so appealing on TV and elsewhere.  Now, however, increasingly the concern about privacy for children entails matters of security, protecting them from their own immaturity as well as the commercial motivations and behavior of others.

Online bullying has received renewed attention since the suicide of a Florida girl after extensive bullying on Facebook.  Lawmakers have begun to grapple with possible legal methods to address online bullying and the question of whether to allow people to erase their digital histories.  Gov. Brown of California recently signed a law that allows residents to erase online indiscretions posted while they were teenagers.  Other countries, too, are trying to make changes that would give residents greater control over their online privacy.

This brings us back to the question of parental control; when and how it can be used.  Certainly, parents need to check on how information about their children is being used by the schools their children attend, and to insist that private information is not shared without their permission.

The decision about how much control to use over children’s use of the internet and social media will vary among parents.  Parents have considerable ability to monitor such use by young children.  In general, parents provide the finances and equipment required for children to have access to technology.  Ground rules can be established with children, in addition to technological controls, before such access is provided.

As with so many aspects of raising children, however, so much depends on establishing a relationship early on that informs children of our values, and builds the trust that can lead to greater openness to parental guidance on the part of children.

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