Privacy and Public Shaming in the Internet Age

Privacy and Public Shaming in the Internet Age

1205496024_69afcc167fWhile brooding over an article on the topic of internet sharing and privacy, an example of what some prefer to call “tough love parenting” passed my radar:Mother Violates Daughter on Facebook.

I have argued before (here and here) that despite the impressions we may get from media, younger generations are not all happy-go-lucky with technologies that enable intrusion of privacy and permanent digital humiliation. After all, Bradley Manning and Edward Snowden are both Millennials. And they are all changing the discourse on transparency, sharing and privacy, and how this all should be handled. And the kids are watching.

Sociologist and psychologist Sherry Turkle at MIT has studied people of various ages interfacing with robots and digital media for over two decades. She finds that teenagers’ relationship with social media is more complicated than naked statistics seem to show. The fact that they do share so much private information is not evidence of their lack of reflection, but seems to boil down to convenience, fatalism, immaturity and peer pressure. Most kids make trade-offs between convenience and privacy and take for granted that their data will be accessible to hackers or intrusive agencies anyway. This could indicate a degree of privacy fatigue, but not indifference. For example, in the aftermath of the NSA revelations studies from FOX News, CBS News and Gallup all show younger and older generations feel equally ambivalent when asked about surveillance activity.

2,300 years ago Aristotle articulated a still famous quote: “The young are heated by Nature as drunken men by wine.” Adolescents today are no more “drunk on youth” than their ancestors were, but a 17-year-old will probably still be less careful than a 41-year-old. Immaturity notwithstanding, what might look like capricious behavior is mainly a brash façade. Sexting for example, is more often a result of peer pressure than of exhibitionism. Emily Bazelon writes in her book Sticks and Stones about bullying that the internet did not create a new type of bullying, but opened a whole new arena where bullying can be prolonged and leave permanent marks, even suicide. Kids expect each other to continue their power plays online. If not, their social status will be in jeopardy offline as well as online.

Which brings me back to the growing trend of disciplining through shaming (or parental bullying depending on how you view the issue). If there is an overarching “logic” to ‘slutshaming’ daughters on Facebook or shooting ones daughters’ laptops for an infinite online audience, I think it must go something like this: “I, your parent, claim the right to expose your misbehavior in a public, permanent medium and thereby taint your digital record for all posterity. To prevent you from harming your integrity online, I have now done it for you – to teach you a lesson!”. Obviously there is no real logic here. A parent’s shaming video is much more likely to go viral than any offense these kids can make on their own. In most cases we are witnessing dirty family laundry that has piled up so high that the parents out of desperation throw it out the window for the world to see. One may feel sympathy for the parent’s reaction because parenting is one of the toughest jobs in the world. But does it make it acceptable? Replicable? When parents subscribe to this idea of public shaming they implicitly claim to have proprietary rights to their child’s integrity and the prerogative to carry out acts of public humiliation even it is compromising their child’s lifetime opportunities. It is pretty much the equivalent of beating a child with an iron rod in response to the child beating herself with a spoon. The only difference is that the marks left by the rod will gradually fade, but the digital imprints will stay there forever. What I find most troubling here are the comments this movie clip generates, from the philosophically indifferent “Lol”s and the “She’s in trouble!” remarks to the comments from self-righteous moralizers frothing with a schadenfreude similar to that of the spectators to a 16th century witch burning ceremony. The mama with the foul mouth and privileges to destroy her daughter’s reputation has no problems rousing a group of hooligans who will be inspired to carry out similar retributions against their own children. How would people react if this ‘disciplining’ strategy were carried out to shame an elderly parent for whom the adult child has guardian rights? We would be abhorred. We would rightfully called it elder abuse, but isn’t that is exactly what all kinds of internet shaming really is? Abuse.

Ok, maybe with the exception of the blissfully misbehaving, darn cute “good pets gone bad”!


Some types of shaming are just cute and funny. Maymo the dog (elephant).

There have always been authority figures who equate public humiliation with discipline. Back in the medieval days petty criminals were put in the stock for all to disgrace with rotten fruit and excrement. The modern stock brings permanence and a worldwide audience to a wide variety of once private and ephemeral situations such as these now inerasable memories of otherwise transient family feuds. Some things can never, ever be taken back, and we will see wounds that will never heal and parents who will never be offered forgiveness by their children.

As troubling as this trend is, the most heinous transgressions are still few and far in-between. More disturbing are the masses of onlookers, signaling that personal matters in a child’s most vulnerable years are now left to the mob. When parenting decisions are made in the memetic silos of the Internet, feedback will reflect chanting echo chambers rather than levelheaded advice. The boundary for what is considered acceptable methods in behavior modification could subsequently drift into a very dark area.

The only discrete difference between parental shaming and common bullying is that of age and kin. Only when we agree not to be generationally myopic can we address the full problem with cyberbullying.

 Images: 周小逸 Ian!anaughty! &



  1. Elizabeth
    Oct 01, 2013 @ 13:03:10

    This is such an important topic right now. Adolescence is hard enough without having one’s growing pains subject to public judgement.


  2. Anne Boysen
    Oct 01, 2013 @ 14:20:50

    Thank you for commenting, Elizabeth! I agree. Adolescence is a time to be shielded from the mob, not caught in it’s spotlight. Public judgement is bad enough. I also believe many family feuds that would otherwise be erased by history will leave unwanted traces to be mined by agencies, scrutinized by potential employers and disappoint or embarrass future spouses and children.


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