I led a question-filled discussion this evening for an hour and a half with parents at Westminster Presbyterian Church of Oklahoma City, titled “Internet Safety and Social Networking for Parents.” Of the presentations and workshops on Internet safety and safe digital social networking I’ve led to date, I think this one was the best received and most helpful. I was much more focused and specific in the advice I shared with parents about content filtering and other topics than I have been in the past, and we spent time actually exploring MySpace and other social networking sites– places many of the parents had not ventured previously online. I will be posting the full audio recording of the session along with some additional commentary over on “Eyes Right” soon. (I’ll post it there since this was a presentation for a Christian audience and included some points that were explicitly religious, rather than the strictly secular perspectives/points that I generally share in presentations about Internet safety.)

The toughest question of the evening regarded my recommendation that parents sit down with their teenager, explore their social networking “friends” profile pages, set up a social networking account of their own and have their teen “friend” them so they can view and check their online profile periodically. One parent of a young teenage boy reported that her son refused to let her see his MySpace profile or let her “friend” him, because the things he was writing there were private and he didn’t feel like he needed to let his parents in on all his conversations.

Angry Look

This situation raises a variety of issues and questions, and I’m not sure I responded well to this parent’s questions of what to do. In reflecting about this afterwards, I’ve thought that the central issue is whether it is OK for anyone to post ANYTHING online that s/he regards as private and confidential. Because kids often setup MySpace profiles that are “private,” I think they have an expectation of privacy for the content they post and share there. I think that perception of privacy is false, however, and potentially dangerous. Today’s teenage friends can become tomorrow’s ex-friends, and there are NO guarantees about others keeping information posted online confidential forever. I think people of all ages should regard digital communication technologies, including email as well as social networking sites, as PUBLIC spaces where the information shared could appear on the front page of the school or city paper the following day. That was one of the key pieces of advice shared by lawyer Celynda Brashner at METC last year in a presentation titled, “Policy, Privacy and Practical Legal Issues for Teachers, IT and Others.” Don’t ever email something (or post something online, even in a “private” social networking site page) which you don’t want to see in a courtroom presented as evidence in a case.

I think there are many young people using social networking websites who do NOT have this perspective. There are not easy answers to this situation, and I’m very reluctant to pretend I have all “the answers” when it comes to difficult parenting situations involving or not involving digital technologies. I certainly think it is important to maintain open lines of communication with your child, but I also think as a parent it is important to establish rules and boundaries for virtual/digital interactions as well as face-to-face ones.

Should children have a right to privacy in their own home? I think it is fine for kids to keep their own diary, and have a right to keep those thoughts private and secret from everyone else– including parents. I don’t think kids should treat social networking websites, like MySpace, as an online diary where they have a reasonable expectation of privacy, however. As the story of the high school principal who setup a MySpace profile and caused some students to become irate when he left comments on their pages reportedly said, “It’s NOT your space. It’s the PUBLIC Internet.” This is a key concept of social networking which I think youth, in some and perhaps many cases, fail to fully comprehend.

What suggestions or advice would you share with a parent in this situation?

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8 Responses to Extent of a child’s right to online privacy

  1. Gary Stager says:

    A personal paper-based diary and private MySpace page are exactly analogous when the issue is whether a child may keep thoughts secret from parents.

    The fact that the information may be read by others is a red herring when discussing a child’s right to have thoughts inaccessible to parents.

    My parents loved and respected me. They told me what not to watch (and we typically obeyed), respected our privacy and trusted us to do the right thing. This approach worked pretty well with my own kids as well. Our 20, 22 and 24 year-old kids have had their own computers since preschool and 99% of the time they have done the right thing.

    I had HBO and cable TV in 1973 (at the age of 10) and both of my parents worked. I have tried to convince people that children could be trusted ever since.

    I am concerned that even well-meaning efforts to educate parents about Internet safety inevitably lead to over-protection, fear and hysteria.

    We endanger the very same kids we desire to protect when we over-protect them, remove all risk and deny them opportunities to make personal choices. Such conditions make moral and ethical development impossible.

  2. Gary Stager says:

    Also, I have learned over and over again that the best way to keep kids safe and from engaging in destructive behavior is to engage them in constructive behavior.

    Why not do cool things with parents and kids with computers rather than scare them about theoretical risks?

  3. Wesley Fryer says:

    There are several reasons for the parent(s) to want to see and review their child’s MySpace account– I agree that discussions about Internet safety can lead (and perhaps often lead) to increasing levels of parental fear and overprotection. In my experience that is the “standard outcome” of presentations when law enforcement officials talk to parent groups about Internet safety. This would be a very interesting and important issue to not just follow up on but actually research. What do parents DO after they get home with their children and the technology in their homes following a presentation on isafety? I am making every effort to promote awareness and knowledge on the part of parents, but avoid hysteria and irrational fear. This is a real challenge given the multitude of things which are viable concerns online. I think one of the best measuring sticks for presentations like this are the constructive conversations which ensue following the session– conversations not based on fear, but rather based on a desire (on both the parts of the parent(s) and the children) to exchange perceptions and listen to each other– and ultimately partner to address issues of concern.

    The first reason a parent might want to view their child’s MySpace (or other social networking site) profile is because they fear (or are concerned, if the emotion is milder) their child might be making “mistakes” which could prove costly for them down the road. This could include disclosing too much personal information, disclosing personal contact info, posting photos of themselves and/or friends which could impede their future college or employment prospects, etc. Parents do have an abiding interest in the activities and actions of their children, but that role certainly changes over time as the child matures. Like other things I discuss and share about Internet safety, perhaps I should frame this suggestion not as “advice for everyone” but yet another option that is on the menu when it comes to promoting safe and responsible use of the Internet, as well as more generally just good “life choices.”

    Another important reason parents might want to view their child’s MySpace profile is to learn more about their child’s friends. I have heard multiple stories from parents who have been amazed (and in some cases shocked) by what they learned by visiting the MySpace profile pages of their child’s boyfriend, girlfriend, or other friends and acquaintances. I do think it is important for parents to be informed and involved in the peer group their children choose. Research I’ve read (I’m thinking of Stephen Glenn and Jane Nelson’s book “Raising Self-Reliant Children in a Self-Indulgent World: Seven Building Blocks for Developing Capable Young People,” a book I highly commend) indicates that generally, as kids enter their teen years their peer group becomes the dominant influence in their lives, far outstripping the influence of parents and other adults. One of the key conclusions from that research (which focused on constructive ways to prevent a variety of youth self-destructive behaviors) is to increase the involvement, engagement, and communication which takes place between young people and older adults on an on-going basis. Glenn and Nelson call this “dialog,” which they define as “a meaningful exchange of perceptions in a non-threatening environment.” So, that understanding of promoting dialog in the home to increase the positive parent and adult influences in the life of the child throughout the teen years certainly informs my thinking and presentations on this topic.

    I agree, Gary, that your parents’ approach of “trust the kids” sounds like an ideal approach. Kids are very different, however, and so are parents, and the options open to a parent of a pre-teen may seem quite different than those available to the parent of a teenager who is already in active rebellion against the authority of the parent(s).

    I concluded our workshop last night be noting that ultimately, there is NOT a technology which can “solve” or “make easy” the situations which now commonly arise regarding inappropriate content on the web or “poor choices” which young people are making in virtual spaces. Ultimately face to face communication and maintaining open lines of communication is the most important thing parents and children can do/maintain to address these issues and others which come up in the course of life.

    I suggested to the coordinator of this parent group that she set up a student/youth panel to discuss and address many of these issues: Having a youth-only discussion for 2 hours and then inviting parents to come listen to them speak in a panel for an hour. Like we see at most educational technology conferences, generally at events focused on Internet safety and kids we talk ABOUT the kids but don’t actually LISTEN to the kids. She was receptive to this idea, so hopefully that will take place later in the semester.

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts and perspectives on this, as always, it is challenging to consider different viewpoints and that process is always valuable. I agree whole heartedly on your last point about encouraging parents and kids to engage in constructive and FUN activities with computers together– that would be a great element to add to this presentation and overall message as well.

  4. Wesley Fryer says:

    These were the primary concerns about Internet safety and social networking which parents brainstormed together in groups as the start of this presentation/workshop.

  5. I think parents should teach the concept of online privacy to kids rather than strictly police what kids can and can’t do online. If the parents teach their kids about the good things and bad things of being online, then kids will be able to better use these online services in the future when they don’t have their parents’ guidance.

    It’s similar to teaching kids about the dangers of smoking instead of saying “smoking is bad, don’t do it”… what happens when the kid goes to a party by him/herself?

    Parents should instill values, so kids can do it on their own later on.

  6. Trust Guard says:

    We definately need to show our kids that we trust them. We need to let them have their privacy to some extent. We teach them right and then hope that they will make the right decisions, but it is still a good idea to check up on their Myspace pages or whatever once in a while. You never know the kind of people that may be stalking our kids online. Ultimately it is our duty to keep them safe.

  7. This question really isn’t about whether children have the right to privacy. It is really about whether the Internet is a private place or a public place. I am a firm believer in teaching children about public and private behavior. The Internet is a PUBLIC place. There is no place on the Internet that is private. Creating an online account somewhere and clicking the privacy button does not make the information stored there private. That is like leaving a bag in an airport locker and assuming that the small lock will deter everyone from gaining access to your bag. Children (or adults) should not write, post, share, comment, or do anything on the Internet that they wouldn’t do in a large open public place. I tell them to imagine they are in the middle of the mall with a microphone and a large screen TV.

  8. Mike says:

    Online privacy should be equal for everone whether it is a child or it is an adult. But some sites like that of adult ones should set an age barrier so that children cannot visit them.

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