Internet Issues and Privacy

On Monday I introduced a report from the Harvard Graduate School of Education called Young People, Ethics, and the New Digital Media (go to Monday’s post to download the report in its entirety).  The authors contend that there are five primary issues to address and investigate at the intersection of these three forces:

Because this report is a great analysis and discussion of the issues involved, I am breaking down each of these topics and presenting them in more common language, and then addressing the specific question of what it means for parents.


The authors begin their conversation on privacy by addressing a gap between where adults and teenagers potential differ in how they think about (and therefore approach) online privacy.  To many adults, the primary goal when considering online privacy is to hide personal information.  For many teenagers however, the goal is to carefully manage the disclosure of information.  Furthermore, the authors go on to say, many young people believe that for spaces they consider “private,” viewers who are not intended to read or participate (teachers, parents, extended family, college admissions personnel, etc.) will be aware of that fact and respect their privacy by treating the online space as they might a diary found on someone’s bed.

With this understanding of many youths’ beliefs about online privacy in mind, the authors found that there were clear promises and perils involved in young people’s approach to sharing information.

The promises include: empowerment of themselves and others; creation of communities of support around shared struggles; and the development of a broader, ethical sense of responsibility with respect to privacy.  Particularly important is the reality that without some level of sharing online, teenagers may feel that they are unable to achieve their identity-related benefits and goals (which are in many ways developmentally appropriate for them to be working to attain), and so may decide to err on the side of a higher level of self disclosure in order not to hinder their identity development.

The potential perils from sharing too much online are often far more obvious and understandable to adults when compared to benefits of openness.  The authors state them in this way: “Youth can harm themselves and others by failing to consider altogether the persistence, searchability, replicability, and invisible audiences for, their personal data and the information they share online” (p.23).  The authors go on to briefly state the potential moral and ethical development issues that young people may experience if they lie about even small issues, because it can be sometimes be difficult to understand the difference between a small, unimportant lie that maintains privacy and a lie that can hurt other people or damage relationships.

With all of this taken into account, ultimately the authors suggest that “the promises of the ‘digital public’ can be realized and the perils avoided if young participants are conscientious, responsible participants who consider the broader implications of their self-presentations in light of the properties of persistence, searchability, replicability, and invisible audiences that characterizes the new media.” (p25)


Privacy is one of parents’ biggest concerns when we talk about their teenagers being online.  Particularly this issue of persistence comes up over and over again – the parents have such a high level of concern that young people don’t understand the potential long-term implications of putting their information online.  And, frankly, this is a legitimate concern for many teenagers.  At the recent SXSW Interact panel I moderated, one of the audience members asked the two teenage panel participants if they were concerned about adults associated with internships or college acceptance looking into their Facebook or other online presences.  Both teenagers went blank for a moment and stumbled over themselves to say they had no idea that these people could access their accounts.  While this kind of online awareness seems to be an obvious and high-level concern for parents and adults generally, it can be easily overlooked by teenagers.  However, for many young people, having their parents remind them of this issue does not have nearly the impact that having an adult in one of these positions tell them.  Teenagers are hungry for real-world experience and knowledge – not experience or knowledge that is mediated through their parents.  Just as we teach young people to do academic research from authentic sources, it is legitimate for teenagers to want to find (or have presented to them) research about the persistence, searchability, replicability, and invisible audiences that exist online.  As parents of critical thinkers, we should expect nothing less of them.  Thus, finding authentic sources for these issues rather than simply passing on the information to young people is often critical.

Once a teenager is well educated about the issues associated with online privacy, however, they will still need to decide when, where, and how to put that information into action.  As the Harvard report suggested, there are often different understandings about the inherent nature of privacy online between teenagers and adults.  Education will not eliminate that gap.  While direct parental interventions with younger teenagers about their online presence, or in extreme cases or those involving anything illegal or photographs of a sexual nature, may be warranted, ultimately it is often important for parents to let the young person make their own, authentic decisions after parental input has been offered.

The parenting goal for parents of teenagers is not to make decisions or lead the life of the teenager for him or her – but rather to expand their thinking, bring up options, and support them in their own critical thinking process.  This can be very hard to do, particularly when you see a potential harm that you are concerned your teenager just isn’t aware of or isn’t taking seriously.  But even in these times, you can still step back, support your teenager, and help him or her pick up a mess if (or when) it happens.  Often our best lessons are learned through failure and mistakes – and there is just nothing that our parents could say or do to fend off those difficult lessons.

About Karen Rayne

Dr. Karen Rayne has been supporting parents and families since 2007 when she received her PhD in Educational Psychology. A specialist in child wellbeing, Dr. Rayne has spent much of her career supporting parents, teachers, and other adults who care for children and teenagers.

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  1. […] Busy, busy day today, folks, so if you want background on today’s post, go look at yesterday’s post. […]

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