Privacy: When Will They Ever Learn?

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What will it take to make adolescents and teens understand that what they do just about anywhere is not private — even if it’s digital and feels like a limited number of others will know? Perhaps we are about to find out.

Harvard University recently rescinded acceptances from ten or more incoming students who formed a “private” Facebook page and traded sexually explicit and disgusting memes about kids, women, and people of color. Putting aside the loathsome behavior — just for a moment — why on earth would these young people consider any Facebook group or any other online group to be private, even if it has private in its name?

Crimson reporter Hannah Natanson writes:

In the group students sent each other memes and other images mocking sexual assault, the Holocaust, and the deaths of children, according to screenshots of the chat obtained by The Crimson. Some of the messages joked that abusing children was sexually arousing, while others had punchlines directed at specific ethnic or racial groups…

Many other significant issues are at play here and will certainly be examined by people more expert than me, so I do not want to address freedom of speech, adolescent behavior, or other developmental and cognitive issues. All are important to consider; however, I want to address privacy and how little of it we have.

Our lack of privacy is a given in the digital age. Certainly we can do much to protect ourselves, but individuals should never assume that what they do, especially if it’s indiscrete, will stay private. Most of the parents I know continually talk to their children, preadolescents, and teens about the importance of posting online carefully and curating digital profiles. But for many kids — oh yes, and many adults who should know better — the lack of privacy just doesn’t sink in.

Perhaps this momentous event at Harvard University, so earth-shattering for the students who made the dreadful decisions, will help change things, maybe becoming a sentinel event that will help all young people think about the consequences of their digital decisions and the need to spend time and energy developing their digital dossiers. In 2010 I wrote a blog post, Intention vs. Consequence: What Kids Don’t Understand, and today —seven years later in 2017 and with even less privacy — the post takes on even more relevance,

When will they ever learn that there isn’t much privacy in 21st Century life? When will they understand that with social media, the Internet of things, online purchases, and data-mining, privacy continues to decrease?

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