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Youth privacy study: Should focus be only on parents’ views?

I’m sure Internet industry CEOs who’ve said or implied that “privacy is dead” are wishing they never had. I am too – but for different reasons. Where online kids are concerned, statements like that break an important global discussion down into a simplistic, binary argument about whether or not companies protect children’s privacy. That argument keeps us (parents) focused on the wrong things and doesn’t get us any closer to the goal: control of our online privacy.

The same goes for headlines like “Parent survey says social networks don’t protect kids’ privacy” and “Online Privacy Poll: Parents Want Government To Step In.” CNN and Broadcasting & Cable are covering a survey released in Washington today by Common Sense Media. Among other very high percentages, it found that 75% of US parents “would rate the job that social networks are doing to protect children’s online privacy as negative.” I really support some of the measures Common Sense, along with the FCC, FTC, and Education Department are calling for (keep reading), but I urge parents not to get stuck in the negative echo chamber of headlines and survey findings that reflect mostly past experience with media, privacy, and publicity (see this on last spring’s Kaiser Foundation study) – the views and understandings of a generation that grew up in a very different media environment. In that fading media environment, we were consumers, not participants; media distribution was mainly one-way and top-down or head-end; media companies had much more sway over their consumers’ experience; and media were regulated (or at least much more regulatable).

Why parent surveys don’t help right now

I used the word “negative” up there for a reason: We fear what we don’t understand. So our reaction to new media as well as how young people use it – whether we’re wearing parental, user, or policymaker hats – has been and continues to be more negative than positive, more suspicious than open, and often quite fearful. Which means we push for protections that no longer truly protect and miss the upsides and benefits of developments we suspect. Don’t get me wrong; it’s interesting, maybe a little comforting to read about fellow parents’ fears, but it’s not productive.

But back to that un-useful binary argument about whether or not the Internet industry protects children’s privacy. Of course it can do more, and it needs to factor the impact on minors more – much more – into the development of every feature and product. No question. I applaud Common Sense’s call for simpler privacy policies, a “Do Not Track Kids” approach, default “opt-in” settings so that users make conscious decisions to use privacy- and even safety-jeopardizing features like geolocation-sharing services, and updating privacy laws to protect citizens of all ages from behavioral advertising. Those would probably help improve Net users’ privacy protection.

Focus on current media conditions needed

But anything that keeps the focus solely on how the Internet industry or the government protects children’s privacy is doing parents and youth a real disservice. It’s not thinking based on current media conditions, with hundreds of millions of users posting their own words, pictures, productions, research, reactions, etc. in realtime, 24/7, worldwide. Facebook alone gets 30 billion pieces of new content in at least 70 languages every month and more than 100 million new photos a day, it says. Under these conditions, safety and privacy are necessarily, logically maintained at the grassroots level as much as – if not more than – the site or government levels. Simply consider the negotiation that should take place among friends when one of a certain day’s 100 million photos is a group photo in which several subjects are identified, or tagged, in someone’s public photo album. [For more on current media conditions, see “Why a ‘living Internet’?” and Social Web privacy: A new kind of social contract we’re all signed onto.”]

Anyway, in order for this discussion to benefit its supposed beneficiaries – youth – it has to factor in their current privacy and safety practices (for example, see “Younger users are much smarter than adults about managing their privacy and publicity”) and see them as stakeholders in their own well-being online. How can young people – the user-driven Web’s most avid users – benefit from policies and settings they choose to ignore because they haven’t been properly sold on the benefits to them? Legislation may persuade responsible social-media companies based in the US to protect consumer data and create privacy-protection settings but it will take a lot more to persuade many users – young or old – to share their data responsibly or use privacy settings. That’s where our focus needs to be in this media environment!

I’d like to see us set policy, from the household level to the national and international levels, based on respectful conversations with our young people and research about how they’re using new media – not on research or headlines about how we adults feel about social media.

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  1. As you know Anne, I respect much that you have to say. But in this case, I thoroughly support Common Sense Media’s efforts. Facebook’s default privacy settings, as well as the information they suggest minors provide, are not safe.

    The default privacy settings for minors share far too much of their personal information with people who their friends have linked to. The default settings could easily be changed to the most restrictive – and then allow teens who want their lives to be more public to change them. danah boyd’s research demonstrates that among college students, those with less skill do not change their settings. Obviously, this relates to concerns associated with minors. They are not choosing to ignore settings. Changing the settings takes sophistication and understanding that they lack.

    Facebook’s principles state that people should control their information. But Facebook lets Friends add their friend to a group, tag them in a picture, check them into a physical location, and provide a significant amount of personal information to commercial web sites – all without their explicit consent.

    Further, Facebook requests minors to provide Profile Information such as whether they are interested in men or women and if they are interested in a relationship. This places teens at risk of inappropriate contact.

    These are the facts – not a misunderstanding of the facts. Facebook – as well as all other social media sites – must place the privacy and safety of children and teens first. Not after their interests in market profiling and targeted advertising.

    SAFETY should be the default.

    October 9, 2010

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