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'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.

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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.

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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.

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