Skip to main content

'Facebook parenting' is destroying our children's privacy

By Aisha Sultan and Jon Miller, Special to CNN
updated 2:55 PM EDT, Fri May 25, 2012
Facebook's 900 million members include many parents eager to share photos and updates on their children.
Facebook's 900 million members include many parents eager to share photos and updates on their children.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Today's young parents are first generation to raise kids in age of social media
  • Authors say well-intentioned parents are frequently sharing photos, reports on their children
  • They say kids' privacy is being surrendered before they're old enough to make their own choices
  • New study: Nearly two-thirds of young parents reported posting their kids' photos online

Editor's note: Aisha Sultan is a parenting columnist at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch and recent Knight Wallace Fellow at the University of Michigan. Follow her on Twitter: @AishaS. Jon Miller is director of the Longitudinal Study of American Youth in the Institute for Social Research at the University of Michigan.

(CNN) -- Today's 30-somethings are the first generation whose children are coming of age alongside the social Web.

Technology is making an indelible imprint on modern parenting, and there is a sense that our data, our personal information, are no longer within our control. But new research findings indicate that openness and information sharing are a way of life for many adults, and personal privacy is readily compromised, along with personal information about one's children.

In an attempt to understand how much privacy matters in this digital age, we questioned 4,000 young adults as part of the Longitudinal Study of American Youth, the largest and longest-running nationwide survey of its kind.

Aisha Sultan
Aisha Sultan

The same participants have been surveyed every year since 1987, when they were public middle or high school students across the country. The sample is now 37 to 40 years old.

Jon Miller
Jon Miller

Nearly a quarter of these Generation X young adults expressed a high level of concern about online privacy, while 40% reported a low level of concern. But the behaviors were more telling: Nearly 70% said they have shared their own photos online and post about nine personal pictures each year.

Girl grew from online punishment, mom says

More than half (55%) said they have shared information or posted pictures from a vacation. Also, nearly two-thirds of parents (66%) reported posting pictures of their children online, and slightly more than half (56%) shared news of a child's accomplishment.

Well-intentioned parents with great instincts have a desire to share and connect about their children, which often helps foster and maintain social ties to relatives and friends. Our extended families live in different states, and we enjoy being able to keep up with siblings, nieces and nephews. But there is a cost to connection, and many are unclear about what is lost and what is at stake.

Opinion: Is the Internet hurting children?

Privacy concerns as Facebook goes public
Student fighting Facebook over privacy

By and large, the short-term implications of less-guarded personal privacy may be limited in scope, such as being vulnerable to burglary if vacation plans are publicly announced or victim to possible identity theft. There are also amplified consequences to using poor judgment when posting online, such as getting fired or sustaining damage to one's reputation.

But, there are also the decisions made about us that happen in the shadows, the calculations of who merits credit or constitutes an insurance risk, which are harder to track and weigh.

Opinion: Despite Facebook, privacy is far from dead

On the most basic level, we want to be able to tell our story about our lives. But, in the case of our children, a permanent and public story has already been recorded about them before they have a chance to decide whether they want to participate or even whether the narrative is true to their own vision of self.

In our survey, the greatest reported levels of concern about online privacy relate to online credit card use (67% said they were very or somewhat concerned) and online banking services (61%), followed by concerns about social networks (57%). Concerns about social networks were greater than those about online medical records, search engines, instant messaging and texting. How this concern translates into behavior is less clear.

The message from parents, as witnessed from behavior, is clear. Children grow up learning that posting pictures of one's self and sharing personal information is typical. We've created a sense of normality about a world where what's private is public. The sense of being entitled to privacy has been devalued.

And our children will never have known a world without this sort of exposure. What does a worldview lacking an expectation of privacy mean for the rest of society?

The founders of our Constitution could not have imagined a democracy in which our physical movements are tracked by cell phones, our personal correspondence is scanned for key words by corporations and we willingly surrender our reading lists and fleeting private thoughts.

It's an arrangement we've made not just for ourselves but for our children, as well.

When many parents are confronted about what it means to raise children in an era of greatly diminished privacy, the most common responses are: I really have nothing to hide, and who would be interested in my life, anyway?

How to connect with your kids online (without shaming them)

But these rationalizations miss the point, because privacy is one of those nebulous rights that don't matter until it matters. Who worries about Miranda rights until an arrest?

We are living in an era in which every keystroke online, from the information you search for to videos you watch to things you consider buying, is collected, stored, archived, aggregated and potentially shared or sold. And regardless of the false sense of security offered by the key on the upper right corner of your keyboard, there is no delete key for the Internet. Once it's out there, it's probably out there forever.

There is a spectrum, of course, of parental behavior toward their children's private lives, from those who sequester and smother their children in a misguided attempt to protect them to those who exploit and commercialize on the largest stages available.

But never before have parents had the ability to publish the details of their children's lives in such a widespread manner.

A potentially embarrassing anecdote won't faze a toddler, but how does the unilateral flow of information affect a tween or teenager?

Recently, a new set of proposed changes to Facebook's privacy policy was revealed. They include giving users more access to the data collected about them and attempts to explain how the company tracks them. But the changes would also allow Facebook to keep certain information longer along with possibly targeting users with ads across the web, not just on the Facebook site. So, the valuable marketing information gleaned from pictures, posts and "likes" is not contained just to Facebook but used throughout the Web.

More than 900 million of us (and counting) willingly participate in this exchange of information for convenience and connection. But we implicate more than ourselves in the transaction.

We have a right for our data to not rise up and destroy us. We have a right to create our own narrative about our lives. We have a right to control how much we want the world to know about us.

These are fundamental to our personal autonomy.

Our children deserve the same protections.

Follow @CNNOpinion on Twitter

Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the authors.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 8:37 AM EDT, Tue October 28, 2014
Errol Louis says forced to choose between narrow political advantage and the public good, the governors showed they are willing to take the easy way out over Ebola.
updated 2:03 PM EDT, Mon October 27, 2014
Eric Liu says with our family and friends and neighbors, each one of us must decide what kind of civilization we expect in the United States. It's our responsibility to set tone and standards, with our laws and norms
updated 7:45 AM EDT, Mon October 27, 2014
Sally Kohn says the UNC report highlights how some colleges exploit student athletes while offering little in return
updated 3:04 PM EDT, Sun October 26, 2014
Terrorists don't represent Islam, but Muslims must step up efforts to counter some of the bigotry within the world of Islam, says Fareed Zakaria
updated 9:02 AM EDT, Fri October 24, 2014
Scott Yates says extending Daylight Saving Time could save energy, reduce heart attacks and get you more sleep
updated 8:32 PM EDT, Sun October 26, 2014
Reza Aslan says the interplay between beliefs and actions is a lot more complicated than critics of Islam portray
updated 7:19 AM EDT, Mon October 27, 2014
Julian Zelizer says control of the Senate will be decided by a few close contests
updated 8:12 AM EDT, Fri October 24, 2014
The response of some U.S. institutions that should know better to Ebola has been anything but inspiring, writes Idris Ayodeji Bello.
updated 5:01 PM EDT, Wed October 22, 2014
Paul Callan says the grand jury is the right process to use to decide if charges should be brought against the police officer
updated 12:19 PM EDT, Thu October 23, 2014
Theresa Brown says the Ebola crisis brought nurses into the national conversation on health care. They need to stay there.
updated 6:35 PM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Patrick Hornbeck says don't buy the hype: The arguments the Vatican used in its interim report would have virtually guaranteed that same-sex couples remained second class citizens
updated 12:30 PM EDT, Fri October 24, 2014
The Swedes will find sitting on the fence to be increasingly uncomfortable with Putin as next door neighbor, writes Gary Schmitt
updated 12:32 PM EDT, Fri October 24, 2014
The Ottawa shooting pre-empted Malala's appearances in Canada, but her message to young people needs to be spread, writes Frida Ghitis
updated 9:48 PM EDT, Sat October 25, 2014
Paul Begala says Iowa's U.S. Senate candidate, Joni Ernst, told NRA she has right to use gun to defend herself--even from the government. But shooting at officials is not what the Founders had in mind
updated 6:08 PM EDT, Thu October 23, 2014
John Sutter: Why are we so surprised the head of a major international corporation learned another language?
updated 5:54 PM EDT, Thu October 23, 2014
Jason Johnson says Ferguson isn't a downtrodden community rising up against the white oppressor, but it is looking for justice
updated 12:21 PM EDT, Fri October 24, 2014
Sally Kohn says a video of little girls dressed as princesses using the F-word very loudly to condemn sexism is provocative. But is it exploitative?
updated 4:06 PM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Timothy Stanley says Lewinsky is shamelessly playing the victim in her affair with Bill Clinton, humiliating Hillary Clinton again and aiding her critics
updated 10:14 AM EDT, Thu October 23, 2014
Imagine being rescued from modern slavery, only to be charged with a crime, writes John Sutter
updated 12:00 PM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Tidal flooding used to be a relatively rare occurrence along the East Coast. Not anymore, write Melanie Fitzpatrick and Erika Spanger-Siegfried.
updated 7:35 AM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Carol Costello says activists, writers, politicians have begun discussing their abortions. But will that new approach make a difference on an old battleground?
updated 9:12 AM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Sigrid Fry-Revere says the National Organ Transplant Act has caused more Americans to die waiting for an organ than died in both World Wars, Korea, Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT