2018 has been a hot year for online privacy issues and it’s only April. The #deletefacebook push is still going strong after the Cambridge Analytica scandal and while I won’t be quitting Facebook any time soon, it has certainly gotten the conversation about online privacy started with people who would otherwise take a more Laissez-faire approach to what they put on the Internet.
As far as online privacy goes, I think that I fall somewhere in the middle of the road. I use social media to share pictures of myself and my partner…but I don’t leave my profiles open and I don’t share anything that I don’t want unearthed during a job interview. I turn on the location settings in Google Maps so that I can get around town…but I don’t let my social media apps track my location or “check in”. As one of the first groups of adults to use Facebook in college, I am no stranger to the warnings about how sassy college pictures can hurt your chances of getting a job and thankfully the first link that pops up when I Google my own name is the professional website for a Dr. Jennifer Clark, PhD. Anyone who wants to assume that it’s me and that I have a doctorate is free to do so.
The view from the middle of the privacy road is interesting and it gives me the opportunity to see either side of the spectrum: the folks that put it all out there and the folks, like a friend of mine in the US, who has two children that I have never seen because she will not share their pictures online or via email. While this approach may seem extreme, the issue of privacy becomes even more fraught when we start to talk about kids. In her 2009 article “The Myth Of Online Predators”, Lenore Skenazy attempts to lay our fears about online sexual predators to rest sharing that unless your child is actively approaching chat rooms looking for trouble, there is a good chance that they will be just fine online. I think that Skenazy, founder of Free Range Kids, is right about the evidence pointing away from the danger of adult strangers trying to lure kids via chat room conversations, but what this article doesn’t include is the shift towards location sharing on social media and the role that it can play in allowing KNOWN adult predators to access a child’s whereabouts.
According to Darkness to Light, a non-profit organization committed to empowering adults to help end child sexual abuse, “90 percent of sexually abused children will be abused by someone they know and trust”. The sad and sobering truth is that the danger doesn’t come from strangers online, it comes from family, friends, teachers, coaches, and peers…all of the people that are connected with kids via social media. Snapchat recently introduced SnapMap , a feature that allows you to share your location and see where your online friends are at that moment. Other apps have similar functions, many of which you need to manually disable in order to opt out of. Privacy settings and location sharing are two big topics every time I talk to students about social media and while they seem to be making good choices about how they use and share media, the different settings and updates can be confusing for tech savvy adults, let alone kids.
When I was thinking about this topic, I keep coming back to a group of articles from NPR about the role that location detection software and spyware can play in relationships that have run into trouble, especially among domestic abuse victims. (hyperlinks via the titles)
All of these situations involved adults. Imagine the power that location tracking could have on a child that is struggling with divorce or separation from one or both parents. Social media is new enough that the laws haven’t caught up to issues like “should my child remain Facebook friends with my ex if I suspect that the situation was abusive?” Don’t even get me started on doxxing. Or the NSA. Or shopping apps. Or drones! Yikes.
Do I think that everyone should quit social media immediately because the risks of stalking and sexual assault outweigh the benefits of life online? No. And I’m not a big fan of fear mongering, either. Humans are known to be illogical about risk so it’s entirely possible that you’re more likely to be hit by lightning while being bitten by a shark than you are to be harassed online via your location sharing…but it doesn’t hurt to check out your own app settings to make sure that you aren’t broadcasting your location 24/7, especially if you want to sneak out from work a little bit early on a Friday. I have a friend that took a “sick day” a couple of years ago so that they could travel to an event and found out too late that their Facebook status updates were broadcasting their location to everyone, including their supervisor at work. Whoops.
I also think that it’s worth pointing out the positive side of location tracking as well. Anyone caring for a person with dementia or a child on the autism spectrum can tell you how much peace GPS tracking has brought them. Clothing companies like Independence Day offer optional GPS tracking device storage in their garments so that you can know where your loved one is even if they wander off, a literal lifeline and life saver. I have friends that love the “Find Your Friends” feature on the iPhone because they are able to know where their child is even if they aren’t answering calls or texts. These are choices that every family has to make for themselves.
So what do we make of all of this information and the rapidly transforming threats that accompany our online data? Skenazy wraps up her article about online predators by saying that, “my 13-year-old is online and I’m not worried. We’ve talked (and talked!) about relationships, safety, sex, integrity, and the unlikelihood that anyone would give him an iPod, or anything, for free. Our job as parents is to prepare kids, not to lock them away from technology.” I think that this advice is great. Privacy and safety are two parts of the same important conversation. Security issues come up in all areas of tech use and we will always be one step behind the problems that arise. But. This doesn’t mean we should throw our hands up and walk away from the big, in-person chats that we need to have with students and our own kids about where they can go for help when they run into trouble, in real life or online.