Can We Stop Confusing Kids’ Privacy with Transparency?

Our digital society hasn’t figured out what to do about privacy. More importantly, it hasn’t figured what to do about the privacy of our kids — we keep confusing privacy with transparency.

It’s problematic enough that adults are diving willy-nilly into the digital world, sharing everything about themselves, private and not so private, but it’s even worse to observe a world where everything a child does and almost every mistake he or she makes is now public. These days we are giving children and adolescents no cover and no protection as they blithely explore the digital world while making what in any other era would be common and developmentally appropriate errors.

Lest I sound like a digital Luddite, I’m not. I love participating in the activities of my digital world, actively but moderately, and I have an arsenal of digital gadgets in my purse, book bag, and lying around my house. As an educator, however, I am keenly aware of how much we are forgetting to nurture and honor kids’ developmental stages as they grow up in this digitally dense world. Part of solving that problem involves ensuring that children have a guaranteed amount of privacy.

That’s what James P. Steyer writes in his May 11, 2012 article in The Atlantic magazine, Kids are More Than Data Points. Steyer, the founder of Common Sense Media and a constitutional law professor at Stanford has a newly published book, Talking Back to Facebook: The Common Sense Guide to Raising Kids in the Digital Age  (May 2012). The Atlantic article, adapted from the book, sums up today’s digital dilemma.

The best thing about the article is Steyer’s appeal to long-established and older technology giants, people like Bill Gates and John Chambers (and I’d add Vint Cerf), asking them of offer guidance and mature perspective to their younger compatriots. Steyer argues that successful, but very young entrepreneurs have yet to develop a strong sense of the public’s interest. We need the experienced and seasoned technology leaders to show their younger colleagues the way, modeling some serious concern for the public good.

Years ago (in 2003 — way back in a former digital age) and more than 15 years after I first started teaching kids and their parents about applying thoughtfulness, intention, and respect in their digital activities, I picked up Jim Steyer’s first book, The Other Parent: The Inside Story of the Media’s Effect on Our Children. The book was a guided tour of sorts, introducing parents and educators to media use, ownership, and their promises and pitfalls for children and their families.

After reading the The Other Parent I redoubled my efforts to work with families at my school, helping them become more sophisticated digital consumers. I’ve continued to recommend the book at every single parent technology class that I’ve taught over the years — even when the subject had almost nothing to do with media literacy, the book is always listed on my handout.

Jim Steyer is also the founder of Common Sense Media, a not-for-profit advocacy organization, “dedicated to improving the lives of kids and families by providing the trustworthy information, education, and independent voice they need to thrive in a world of media and technology.”

If you are a parent, educator, or other youth leader in search of resources to help you navigate the world of digital kids, this group and these two books have much to offer.

Read a Washington Post book review (also includes a review of Howard Reingold’s Net Smart).

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