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A parent/author/tech pundit’s view on how to teach kids privacy

By blocking social media in schools and monitoring our kids at home, we’ve been falling down on the job – our job of educating them about how to protect their own privacy in an increasingly networked world. Blocking and monitoring has taught them to develop workarounds, not good privacy practices.

“We want our kids to fight isolation with networks,” said father and pundit Cory Doctorow in this brief talk at The Observer’s recent UK TEDx conference about privacy in a networked world – a world that he says is training us to forgo privacy “in service to a business model” that capitalizes on our social lives. But “we don’t want kids to stop social networking online,” he adds.

Teach them to protect anonymity, not abuse it

“We want them to [socialize online] in a way where pseudonymity and anonymity are a piece of what they do” and where that socializing is “not characterized by a default position of irrevocable disclosure.” And what’s the best way? Not monitoring and blocking, which sends children the message that Big Brother is not only ok, but protective!

Education in Big Brother avoidance and privacy best practices is the answer, Doctorow says. What I hear as he details what that education looks like is that we need to teach our kids how to use social media rather than all the downsides or it and rather than block or monitor their every move in social media.

By, as he puts it, “routinely deploying surveillance technology in the name of keeping our kids safe,” we’re not only not educating them, we’re sending them exactly the wrong message. “It trains kids to believe surveillance of our every move on the Internet is the legitimate thing for authority figures to do. It teaches them to systematically undervalue their privacy – years before they reach Facebook. It in fact grooms them to accept total involuntary disclosure of their social and intellectual life as normal and good.”

Teach privacy best practices

So what should we do? Teach by example, he suggests: “Let’s turn our libraries, schools, and other learning institutions into islands of networked privacy best practices. Let’s teach our kids to encrypt everything they do on the Net, let’s teach them to jailbreak every device they can handle, to choose the best products for their privacy…. teach them to bust every censor wall because every censor wall harvests a record of what they look at, spoof every form they’re asked to put their info into.”

Doctorow concludes that “this won’t automatically make Facebook start selling on privacy, but it will legitimize the use of privacy tools and lay the ground for a future where ‘Why do you need to know this?’ is the default position when someone asks our kids to disclose information over the network.” This will also spill over into teaching and learning online safety and reputation best practices too. [See also “Cory Doctorow’s radical proposition for libraries” at]

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  1. As you know, I have been myself using the nickname clarinette online. For some time, it might have created a filter between my real identity and my online existence. Ironically, it’s a privacy event that has surely given up my real identity, Once you have a public life, it becomes quickly hard to keep the protection, Still I maintain the nickname. My kids are online and I have asked them not to reveal their full name.
    Now, on the anonymity online, few observations:

    1 – A major obstacle, it is against Facebook’s terms of use.
    2- You can always take all measures, others can easily bracke the protections, revealing your real identity, tagging you on pictures, giving out your school’s name, and all sorts of private information about you and this is even more problematic with younger users. It is a collective responsibilty.
    3- de-anonymisation tools are in constant evolution. Sometimes, anonymity becomes a false illusion. (Paul Ohm has done great research on that subject).
    4- Yes, parents and educators need to teach youngsters how to keep safe and the rules of net citizenship. They need to learn them themselves. A generation gap.
    5- Should schools allow access to social networks? Not so sure. The liability issue is not negligible. The age limit exists also.
    6 – Should we reject all monitoring and blocking? Not sure either.

    It’s a question of case by case adjustment.
    My own child loves watching NCSI. She does it in her laptop. Yes, she brings her laptop in her bedroom. I was one to teach no computer in bedroom. I don’t have only one child. They all have homework necessitating internet access. I can assure you, it is not always easy to have all kids in the same room doing homework on laptops. the website she access pops up ugly porn pages. I don’t have anything against learning about sex, just that what these pages show is women being used as object and I don’t like my girls starting their sexual education with these images. Yes, I use parental controls, restricting access to certain sites.

    I have therefore few objections to what Corry Doctorow had said. I have no one solution to offer.
    I guess mostly because internet is still at his infancy age. We need to learn more, to make mistakes to eventually learn the right net-citizenship.

    For sure, privacy is a big component of online presence and no, it’s not dead, we can’t get over it. Privacy has to be tamed to protect the multiple facets or our personalities. The right to Privacy should protect our free speech against the chilling effect of censorship. What is crucial for youngsters is to preserve their life evolution online. This is true for what they post themselves online, their friends about them, their teachers about them, their parents and grand parents about them etc…..

    And no, Mr Eric Schmidt, the solution is not to simply opt for new identity at the age of 21, this is not a realistic option, we all know that.

    May 3, 2011

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