Saturday, 7 February 2009

Digital Natives, Social Networking and Privacy

With the way that the Internet is set up today, we routinely trade personal information for services or products. We provide name, address, telephone numbers, date of birth and email addresses and in return we receive a free Facebook or Amazon account or free OpenOffice or whatever. Firms then can use this information for various purposes, most commonly to target advertisements at us.

There is a contractual basis to the way in which young people use social networking sites too - only that here they are trading personal information for popularity. The dynamic seems to be that the more information that you give out the more friends you will have. To some extent this is what we all do in the offline world. When we meet someone new, say at a drinks or dinner party, we trade snippets of personal information about ourselves as part of the "friends-making process". Where we work, where we went on holiday, our favourite film and what music we listen to - such is the stuff of social small-talk.

But when digital natives meet new people on social networking sites they operate in a totally different way - cocktail party conventions do not apply here. They disclose their life story in a single mouse click, disgorging enormous amounts of personal information to relative strangers. What is more, they do it in a digital format that is easy to store, share and publish. This is a real concern.
"Young people who are living their lives mediated by digital technologies will pay a high price...... Most young people are extremely likely to leave something behind in cyberspace which will become a lot like a tattoo - something connected with them that they cannot get rid of later in life, even if they want to, without a great deal of difficulty"
Pafrey and Gasser Born Digital p.53
Those of us of an older generation, whether parents or teachers, have a responsibility to protect young people from themselves. I am staggered by how naive young people can be at times. Let me give you an example.
This week I discovered that there is a Facebook group for students from my school that consists simply of their mobile telephone numbers. For them this is an easy and effective way of getting in touch with their friends. But it is an "open" group: anyone in the world has access to that group. Teenagers cannot see that the juxtaposition of an attractive sixteen year old girl's profile picture and her mobile phone number might attract unwanted attention from a total stranger.
The same principle applies to photographs. Facebook is an outstanding facility for sharing photographs with family and friends - it is easy to upload pictures for all to see. However there are three aspects to this that concern me.

First, the facility to "tag" people in photographs means that your friends can post photographs onto your site. These might not be photographs that you would want there. There are mechanisms both to prevent others from seeing these pictures and to remove unwanted ones from appearing on your site, but often young people, either through ignorance or choice, do not activate these controls.

Secondly, young people do not distinguish between real friends and casual, passing acquaintances. Thus they give instant access to all of their photo album - whether that be holiday snaps or behaving badly at last night's party.

Thirdly, young people do not consider the long term consequences of posting embarrassing photographs. It is clear that employers are using social networking sites to vet employees [see New York Times]. Before posting a picture, young people need to think, "Would I want this picture on the front page of a national paper?" or "Would I be happy for this picture to be attached to my job application?" Lord help the next generation of politicians and celebrities - the gutter press are going to have a field day!

So, how can we as parents and teachers help the next generation?

When our children were young we taught about the dangers of the world around them: they learned from our actions that the cooker was hot and we showed them how to cross the road safely. In the same way, we need to educate young people about the dangers of publishing too much personal information on the Internet. Above all, we need to give them the skills to navigate the digital landscape and to protect their personal information. In this, I believe that we must lead by example. If we are going to have any credibility, teachers and parents need to have a presence in cyberspace and to have mastered these skills ourselves. There is a huge opportunity here for digital natives and their digital immigrant teachers and parents to open up an effective dialogue to share their collective expertise and experience.

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  1. Informative and interesting blog.

  2. This is a really interesting post, thank you. Following Safer Internet Day last week these issues have been nearer the top of educators' priorities, and I hope that parents and teachers can support their children as they become responsible digital citizens.

    It is challenging for the majority of staff and parents who have not made confident steps into social networks to appreciate the fine line between discernment and paranoia. Many parents are not aware of what their kids get up to online and aren't part of this world where distinctions between real and virtual relationships are blurred. For teachers, staying one step ahead of the class is challenge enough, and many would rather not risk edging into inappropriate territory by encouraging dialogue about online safety and appropriateness.

    The growing dependence in education on filtering and blocking content to prevent access for children is a blunt and clumsy tool; and one which so many savvy youngsters can work around with ease. Instead of helping our students to develop the values they need to navigate the online moral maze, we unintentionally encourage them towards deviousness by demonising banned content and making it seem all the more glamourous and desirable. In my school, any search that includes Bart Simpson is filtered!

    Instead, wouldn't it be wonderful to see students developing a strong sense of digital integrity through school. There is no reason why street smarts for the online natives can't be on the ICT curriculum; but it must be delivered convincingly and appropriately by people who are natives themselves.

  3. I think that there is a case for a compulsory school course in "Digital Literacy" which includes issues such as protecting one's privacy. piracy and copyright issues, and so on.

  4. I completely agree and with the proliferation of social networking sites and chat rooms for children as young as 3 I think there is an argument for internet safety lessons in junior schools. CEOP ( Child Exploitation Online Protection Agency) - a branch of the police are doing some wonderful work on educating adults who work with young people and their website covers instruction for junior and senior schools. I would encourage all adults to look them up. Introductory courses are availabke along with ambassador training courses.