About a month ago there were a few news reports about young people and online privacy such and “Children’s internet use survey offers warning to parents” from the Guardian; “Young net users engage in ‘risky’ behaviour” from BBC News or “Unsupervised Brit kids are meeting STRANGERS from the INTERNET” written in typical Register style. There was also an opinion/questioning article in the Guardian “Are teenagers really careless about online privacy?” Children putting themselves at risk through oversharing and underuse of privacy controls is a recurring theme in the media and is often accompanied by an assumption that 21st Century young people are happy to live their lives in public. A further assumption is that, in this respect, children and young people are significantly different from those who grew up in the pre-digital era. However, a characteristic of new internet users is that they tend to believe that a) they have nothing to hide and/or b) whatever they post is only seen/read/heard by friends. It can sometimes take years to break out of these assumptions and realise that online communication should be considered public by default.
Some of the most prolific over-sharers are parents who are often willing to post quite personal details (and pictures) of their children on the assumption that only friends and family will see them. Sometimes oversharing parents can receive an unpleasant shock when they learn that their blog or forum posts are open to the world and that occasionally the world will talk back. For example, in September 2013, a Christian mother in Texas, Kim Hall, wrote an open letter to female friends of her sons (http://givenbreath.com/2013/09/03/fyi-if-youre-a-teenage-girl/). Mrs Hall criticised girls who posted sexy selfies on their Facebook pages but she illustrated the piece with a photograph of her own teenage sons posing at the beach in their swimwear. Mrs Hall did not realise that these pictures would be perceived as sexy shots but, in any case, she thought that only friends and family read her blog. Unfortunately, the post went viral and the blog was inundated with critical comments. The story spawned a large number of responses on blogs and forums and hit the national and international press (for example, the UK Daily Mail). Some responses were supportive but most were critical either of Mrs Hall’s view that girls were leading her sons into temptation or of the photographs that she had used.
Mrs Hall is not a child. She probably thought that she was quite careful of her privacy and taking care of the privacy of her children by overseeing their Facebook interactions. She thought that when she did post personal information and pictures they were effectively private due to lack of public awareness and interest. Whilst this naïve belief was generally true, Mrs Hall learned the hard way that the internet is a public space and even material that you thought was private may escape.An interesting aspect of the responses to Mrs Hall was that none of them took her post as an example of risky online behaviour. Those responses which used the post as an introduction to a wider issue tended to look at gender relations. If the photograph of the beachy boys had gone viral through a post made by one of her teenage sons, however, this would almost certainly have led to a discussion about young people’s lack of care for privacy online.
Children and young people are, by definition, fairly new users of online communications. Facebook has a lower age-limit of 13 and, although a number of children have Facebook accounts at younger ages, a fourteen-year old is likely to have been engaging in unsupervised online interactions for only a few years, perhaps four, remembering that online environments for younger children (such as Club Penguin) tend to be monitored. Mrs Hall’s blog archive dates back to 2011 although she is likely to have been using the internet for longer than two years which means that she has a similar level of experience and expectations to a fourteen-year old who began a blog at the age of twelve. Instead of categorising young people as ‘digital natives’ who believe that it is normal and acceptable to broadcast their personal lives to the world they should be seen as ‘digital naïves’ who, like many adults, have yet to learn the sometimes harsh lessons of online privacy.