My friend’s son showed me his photo and his blurb that his dad posted on an open-access blog. My friend is very upset as she is concerned about safety and privacy as she was not asked to provide her consent. She is a very private person who seeks to maintain the privacy of her children until she believes they are old enough to make their own decisions about things that can have potential consequences. There are three issues here: what is reasonable precaution? and what happens when there are disagreements about these levels of precaution? Is she training her son to be intelligent about how to use the internet so as not to inadvertently create enduring electronic repository that can shadow him in the future?
I still believe in certain parameters concerning public disclosure as it relates to telephone calls and the internet. In the current situation, a link from the blog to the facebook page makes it easy to identify the facebook pages of the boy and his siblings. Maybe it is a throwback to the days when I was given instructions about how to answer the phone, I tend to subscribe to the view that less information is better. For example, I was taught not to provide my name over the telephone, even if asked; I was taught phrases such as “my parents can’t come to the phone at the moment as they are in the middle of doing someting; “I don’t know when they’ll be finished, I can take your name and number”… My parents were strict about this because I was often home by myself after school, if they needed to work on weekends, or if I needed to stay home from school alone because I was sick. These responses were designed to ensure that an unknown caller would not be able to use my name to establish or trick me into familiarity or find out I was on my own.
These sorts of ‘vetting’ behaviours can be difficult over the internet. In the situation I noted above, it is really easy to obtain quite a bit of information about my friend’s son’s interests, information about the family, information about friends, and so forth to establish trust and rapport. Do I think a nasty situation will occur? No. Do I think he is competent and able to assess people to a certain extent? Yes. Do I think he will meet up with someone who approaches him? No.
What is it that bothers me? I know that anyone could easily do a bit of a search on me, and would have enough information to establish rapport – and could temporarily convince me that I met him/her before. While I know it is not always true that adults know better than children or are better at dealling with life situations, I tend to believe I will figure things out faster than a child when something is ‘not right’. I believe I have a much more practiced degree of skepticism, can start asking targetted questions to clarify what our relationship acually is, and have a bit more training in ‘reading’ people.
Disagreements about Precaution
The other issues concern potential conflict about our different levels of acceptability, comfortability, and desire for precautionary measures. Often parents/guardians disagree with each other about these issues; parents/guardians may diagree with teachers, scout leaders, etc; and children can disagree with their parents. For example, in this situation, a spectrum is already implied from more cautious to less cautious. I know that my friend’s son loves being on the blog, and he was upset with me because I won’t identify him on my blog even though I refer to him or stories about him. He doesn’t see a problem with being known publically.
There are also issues of consent. Should both parents/guardians have to give consent on providing public access to information about their children on the internet? Should children have to give consent their parents? At what age are children deemed competent to give consent? What if children want to use their internet skills to develop their own blogs – should they require parental consent for the activity and the content?
From employers firing staff due to information revealled on facebook, to the recent restored google caches of Anna Ardin’s guide about taking revenge on ex-lovers (see The Age 12 December 2010: 4 re: Julian Assange), the precaution may be more significant in relation to protecting children’s future from their own ‘skeletons in the closet’. The freedom of the internet includes the freedom of others to troll through history, compiling stories, antidotes and photos place in etherspace by the person of interest and others who may or may not know the person of interest. I know I am very glad the internet was not around when I was younger, as my cavalier bravado would have resulted in many things being in the public realm that I would not want to be there. I also had the freedom to enjoy my successes, as well as make my mistakes, my apologies (regardles of whether they were accepted), and move forward in this general process of maturity. I’m sure some of my other hot-headed or brazen friends would agree.
I know children of all ages have a variety of talents they develop in their respective situations, and I have met many children who are wiser, have greater sensitivity to their surrounds, have more finely tuned survival skills than many adults I know. Regardless, of children’s ability to handle a multitude of situations – including the internet, I think it is worthwhile to remember to mix trust in others with certain levels of practicality. For me, this practicality is about not revealling too many facts in open access public forums. How do we learn and negotiate the boundaries of cyberspace with children so they have the knowledge, skills and competence to interact in this world? Or are children already leaps ahead of us in this domain?