What Will "Privacy" Mean for our Children?

Family Matters on 05.04.11
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Parentables contributor Kelly Rossiter's post about sharing naked(ish) photos of our kids on the Internet got me thinking about our kids' cyber-privacy. Rossiter brought up some great questions about how our kids may perceive the tidbits we've decided to unleash about them on the Web as they get older.

Kelly was referring to fellow Parentables contributor, Monica Rodgers, who has a great post about snarkiness and TV. As an example of snarky shenanigans, Monica included a cute photo of her kid in the bathtub giving the camera the stink-eye. At issue is the photo of her kid in the bath.

People sharing their kids' naked-cute photos doesn't bother me, and I tend to think that kids will look to their parents to define how they should or shouldn't react to them in the face of any public disapproval. (I'm also a fan of photographer Sally Mann's work, much of it featuring her children, who seem to have weathered their overexposure just fine.)

That being said, we all know that the Internet has a dark side, one where we can't control the gaze and thoughts of others. This brings up all sorts of questions about whether we should share photos of our children (naked, semi-naked, or fully clothed, for that matter), or whether we're just knee-jerking at a world we can't control and indirectly giving our kids negative messages about their bodies.

That's a debate that deserves some more thought, but what I find myself increasingly preoccupied with and bothered by is what sort of online legacy our kids will end up establishing -- not so much from what we've already planted on the Web in the form of birthday suits -- but what our kids will cultivate about themselves as they get older. How will information about themselves be used against them? 

Name Change for 18th Birthday?
My science podcast co-host, Robert, and I recently talked about whether or not in the age of information privacy is an illusion. One of the things that became immediately obvious in our research is that the issue affects us adults much less than it does kids using the Internet now and in the future.

We already know that children and young adults are much more apt to disclose personal, unedited information about themselves online. Wed this with the fact that kids can transmit a multitude of things about themselves on a multitude of platforms and you have the rare opportunity of data aggregators and hacks able to know where someone is via GPS coordinates, not to mention other information, like test scores, favorite hangouts, intimate thoughts via blogs and Twitter, photos uploaded a mere minute ago, bank account status, health information...

The list goes on and on because adults have essentially ceded some of our privacy in return for the conveniences that technology hands us. To wit: How many of you have read the terms of agreement any time you've downloaded a new app or entered into some kind of online contract? What have you actually agreed to?

The problem is that while most adults don't understand legalese, they pretty much understand the repercussions of living life online; kids don't, and it's a problem. Check out this snippet from an interview with Google CEO Eric Schmidt in the Wall Street Journal:

"I don't believe society understands what happens when everything is available, knowable and recorded by everyone all the time," he says. He predicts, apparently seriously, that every young person one day will be entitled automatically to change his or her name on reaching adulthood in order to disown youthful hijinks stored on their friends' social media sites."

It's one thing to be turned down for a job because of online profiling by employers -- which we've seen happen, but think of how mortified you'd be if every single transgression of your youth was recorded, by you, for all the world to see. Your 15-year-old self doesn't understand it, but you're 30 year-old-self surely does.

And what does today's kind of unprecedented sharing of information mean for kids, besides the chance of being socially ostracized? Recently the New York Times ran the article, "How to Fix (or Kill) Web Data About You." Turns out there are data-scrubbers out there that, for a price, will attempt to give you a squeaky-clean cyber-image. The problem is that the bread trail of information is so well established that it's nearly impossible to completely erase it.

So what about our kids? Will they have to pay off data-scrubbers in the future to maintain some semblance of privacy? Is Google CEO Eric Schmidt off the mark or prescient in his prediction of kids changing their names as soon as they blow out the 18 candles on their birthday cakes?

"Alone Together" author, Sherry Turkle, makes an excellent observation on the insidious effects of technology: "Just because we grew up with the Internet doesn't mean it's grown up."

(Photo credit Mimi Haddon/Getty Images)

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