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The Importance of Protecting Privacy in Today’s Digital World

By Karen Giuffré, M.Ed., of Voyagers Community School

I recently read Danah Boyd’s book “It’s Complicated” and was sparked to write about privacy, a topic I speak to faculty and students about regularly. For most of my life, invoking privacy meant keeping some ideas and information to myself and limiting the sharing of these thoughts with the people I chose. Ask a “technology native,” a term coined by Marc Prensky in 2001 and defined as a person who has grown up with technology as commonplace, and privacy has a vastly different meaning.

Boyd frames the concept of privacy not around keeping aspects of our lives a secret but having agency to decide who sees what we share about our lives. This is an idea I keep in mind when advising faculty and students about privacy and technology. It is our responsibility to let children know of the options they have for sharing their work, ideas, images and life events. They can negotiate privacy if given the right tools and opportunities to practice.

The more we can educate ourselves and our children about privacy options, the more they and we will respect and support each other’s privacy. Privacy will come to be understood and valued as a sort of commodity and a right. To enable children to control their privacy, we might encourage them to use a pseudonym while online, support their choice to opt out of sharing their academic work or creative property on a public site or spend time discussing the potential consequences of a tweet or Instagram post that goes viral.

For teens active on social media sites, like Facebook, Instagram and others, we can suggest tools of manipulation to protect the information they post. While speaking to students, I learned they determine who will see their posts and how the information is controlled, even when the given system of conveyance is not designed for this.

A student explained that every evening, she logs on to Facebook and activates her account to read and post as anyone would. When done for the evening, she deactivates the account. The result is, during the day, when she is offline, it appeared as if she doesn’t have a Facebook page at all since the account is deactivated. In effect, she creates an invisibility cloak for her Facebook, making social media a real-time service. Some might ask, “What is she hiding?” Instead, I think, how resourceful and empowering this is.

To gain control over the comments she posts, which are left to interpretation by others, another student reports, she chooses to delete all the comments and messages she receives after reading them. She also deletes all the comments and updates she posts on other people’s pages a day or two after having posted them. Ingenuity allows some degree of control and agency over one’s words, thoughts and reported actions. It puts the power of privacy in the user’s hands.

For educators, privacy is worth navigating with students, given the powerful and motivating effect of connecting children with authentic audiences for their academic and creative work. Creating something meant to be viewed by people who reflect back differing points of view can turn the results of effort into something transformative. Collaboration and feedback can be of great value to the artist, writer, philosopher and innovator that exists in every child.

Boyd states privacy is “a practice and a process, an idealized state of being, to be actively negotiated in an effort to have agency. Once we realize this, we can reimagine how to negotiate privacy in a networked world.” Let’s help our children better understand the worth and value of taking control of their privacy.

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