Do As I Say, Not As I Do?
Pew Research is one of my main, probably the main go-to source for generational statistics. But for once I am a little disappointed. The culprit is their recent study “Parents Concerned About Teens’ Online Activities and Privacy.” The title captures it all. By focusing only on young people’s own activities they get only a partial picture of all that threaten the privacy of minors today, which in turn distorts the narrative of the online privacy debate.
How would the same stats look if the questionnaire also included questions about the adults’ own contributions to the sharing of content about their children? My guess is it would be much lower because the respondents would be less likely to confess to their own social media oversteps than to those of their “immature” children. Of course, adolescents do a lot more online sharing than adults do. And they might be more likely to engage in risky behavior online, such as communicating with strangers. But does that mean the kids do all the sharing and parents don’t? Hardly. A simple search on the term “oversharenting” reveals that for many, parenting and digital sharing goes hand in hand. If at least one of the member of the Pew crew took the Friday lunch hour to poke around on the STFU, parent site, maybe a question or two about the parents’ own sharing habits would have been included? (If you are a Gen-X parent with a healthy dose of self-irony I bet you will greatly appreciate STFU, Parent!)
In 2010 92% of two-year olds had an online presence. A two-year old’s relationship with digital gadgets is only a tad more literate than the amphibian that tries to lick moving images of bugs off a touch screen, so he is not contributing much to shaping his own online identity. The “offenders” are of course the well-meaning adults in his life who capture nearly every aspect of his existence from the moment he is born.
Children’s online sharing habits concern parents mainly for two different reasons: safety and reputation. The most pressing issue is to keep children safe online and to make sure that the content about them online does not put them in danger. Safety is compromised if identifiable information about a child is made available online. It is especially risky when a child or adolescent communicates with strangers online and this stranger is able to gather identifiable information about the child or if the child agrees to meet this person in real life. This information can be shared voluntarily by a naïve child or involuntarily via geotags or insufficient privacy settings. Safety is the issue most parents are concerned with. It looks like that when teens are young, parents are more likely to help their children set up privacy protections, but less inclined so for older teens. Actually an earlier Pew study shows that close to two-thirds (62%) of teens who have a social media profile say the profile they use most often is set to be private so that only their friends can see the content they post. In the new study only about 40 percent of parents maintain that they help their children set up privacy settings. This indicates that adolescents are likely set up these filters on their own initiative, whether prompted by parents or not. Younger users are also the most eager to “prune” their social profiles for reputation management, possibly revealing stronger internet skills among adolescent children than older users.
Although parents may have an edge when it comes to protection for security reasons, reputation management is where it gets a little muddy. The Pew study reports that more than half of parents who are connected to their children’ social media world had ever raised concerns about something the child posted. But how many parents have asked themselves, or have been asked by others, if the content they are sharing about their child might influence their child’s future reputation in some way? How many have used social media for “shaming” a misbehaving child – even if only jokingly? How many parents have sought peer support around a sensitive parenting issue or highly personal matter to the child on Facebook, yet remained oblivious that their status updates somehow got set to public or at least visible to a larger network? Or how many parents have actually asked well-meaning Aunt Nellie to take down the photo of junior picking his nose because his future date might not find the picture equally endearing? And what about all the Mom Bloggers? The Facebook Dads? The Instagram-Parents? The baby with a Facebook profile and continuous ghost writer updates of the type: “I ate. I burped. I pooped”?
From the sentiment of this post it might look like I am taking a social media luddite stance on the subject, but I am actually not. Full disclosure, I too am one of these parents who gladly share pictures and small snippets about my impeccable children. I sometimes itch to upload every funny photo on my camera, probably to the chagrin of those in my network who really don’t care about my kids. I love to share about my kids, but I try not to be an ‘oversharenter’.
What I miss from the seemingly disconnected discourse about children’s online privacy is that the sharing habits among parents be added into the equation and at least discussed. Since we cannot predict the future other than the fact that having an online tattoo is probably going to be much more common than not, I conclude with imperative that parents should strive to at least be watchful shepherds of their children’s online reputation while they still can. In my view this is not necessarily abstaining from sharing altogether, but to be particularly thoughtful about how the content can be construed or misconstrued in the future. Dirty laundry should never, ever be discussed in social media. As much as possible of the child’s identity should be left alone. Privacy settings should be on, and people at the very fringe of the network should be blocked from the most personal information and geotagged pictures if taken at the child’s home. Not because fringe relations necessarily are bad people, but you just don’t know.
And when it’s all said and done, maybe our grown kids will come visit us at the nursing home with their camera phones ready to broadcast to the world how “cute” we look just after we removed the dentures for the night! “Here’s a goodnight wish from Grammy’s bedside everyone!”
Because what goes around does come around eventually.
Image: Anne Boysen; Flickr~C4Chaos