Teaching Privacy in the Internet Age

Our parents had it easy when it came to teaching privacy. Their job was to teach us about physical privacy and the right to protect our bodies, and to tell unknown callers that our parents weren’t available rather than to say they weren’t home.

Today, parents face a far greater teaching challenge as they now need to extend the principles of privacy to emotional and personal information privacy.

When the internet was still young (all of what, 10 years ago?) we could be online and remain private with relative ease, hiding behind a screen name, unable to be tracked by search engines, data miners, companies or anyone else who today collects information on your every move.

We were in essence anonymous while standing in the crowd of online users, except to those few with whom we expressly chose to reveal our identities. Those days are gone, and so too is the opportunity to anonymously share emotions without the risk of fallout. 

Keeping emotions private

As evidenced by the hundreds of millions of social networkers, there is a huge temptation to share our emotions online, to connect with our digital communities, and tell our worries, troubles, triumphs and joys in the hope of reaping understanding, acknowledgement and support. In doing so, we often fail to consider the reach of that sharing, how exposed we are emotionally and how that emotional information becomes fodder for others to use as they choose.

Emotions are powerful and they can too easily be turned into tools to manipulate. Bullies see opportunities when someone is angry, sad, shy, lonely or depressed. Scammers see opportunity when people are anxious about finances, are in a rush, or show signs of naiveté or greed. Companies see opportunities to push products both when you’re elated and want to celebrate, and depressed and susceptible to retail therapy.  Even friends fall into roles where they may imagine they need to ‘fix’ your problem, or gossip about your feelings, or pass judgment.

How do you help your child learn to protect their emotional privacy?

  1. Teach them to be selective, and to share emotions with trusted friends only.
  2. Talk through scenarios where sharing their emotions could lead to unhappy outcomes.
  3. Help them learn to share slowly. Instead of sharing every emotion and feeling right away, help children learn to share no faster than their trust in another person develops.
  4. Identify when it is safe to share. If your social networking site includes more than 20 close friends, expressions of emotion or feelings should be kept to a minimum. No one has 350 close, trusted personal friends who will support, protect and respect the emotions they share.
  5. Identify where it is safe to share. Even if you’re sharing emotions only with close friends, you have to consider where you are sharing. If you’re using a site that resells your information, then you risk your emotional state being transferred to any company that buys your data. You may not want a potential insurance provider to see that you’re always depressed or angry.

Keeping personal information private

Most internet users now understand that their information is the commodity that drives the internet economy. It is collected through your online actions and the information you share, combined with information the government, schools, organizations, and service providers make available, and it is shared, traded and sold. 

Some users take a fatalistic view that since all of their information is probably already online, there is little use in trying to protect it. This is certainly the view many data aggregators would like you to take as it makes their ability to collect your information infinitely easier.

Start by having a conversation about what types of information your family feels should be kept private. Consider the unintended consequences that the sharing of some types of information can have – like rejection of school or employment applications, denial of medical coverage, and so on. 

Underscore the concept that what you choose to keep private makes a significant impact on the amount of information available about you. Then discuss ways you can limit this information available about you. For example:

You can consciously restrict information:

You can proactively block the sharing of your information:

Helping your child identify why and where appropriate emotional and information boundaries should be set, and helping them to set these boundaries early, is vital to helping them navigate an online world where thoughts and actions can quickly become very public. 

When your child masters these concepts and skills early, they are far more protected in their online interactions, more resilient should they become the target of a cyberbully, better prepared before the first sexting request comes, far less likely to have their emotions or information come back to haunt them and appropriately cautious about sharing information when someone or some company asks for it.