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A room of their own: children’s privacy on the web

by Matthew Beard
18 October 2016
Private spaces are crucial for kids’ development. What about online? Matthew Beard reflects on one of parents’ biggest headaches.

Growing up in a family of six kids, getting my own bedroom was a big deal. I was 12 years old when I first moved into a room of my own. Finally I had control over my space. When I needed quiet, I could close the door – giving myself time to read, to fume at the injustices my siblings or parents had inflicted on me or to play games I didn’t want to share with others. When I was ready to socialise again, all I had to do was open the door.

It’s easy to underestimate the power of a door in the life of a child. For many it represents the first time they can exercise control over their personal information. They can hide what they’re doing from unwelcome eyes or share their personal space with a limited, exclusive audience – think of the ‘NO GIRLS ALLOWED’ signs used to keep sisters at bay.

It’s easy to see these early attempts to assert privacy as innocent and adorable, but there’s reason to believe they also might be a crucial step in a child’s development. Law Professor Julie E Cohen believes privacy is “shorthand for breathing room to engage in the processes of boundary management that enable and constitute self-development”. She adds, “Privacy fosters self-determination”.

If privacy was a precarious notion for pre-internet children, it’s almost non-existent for many children today.

This suggests a bedroom isn’t merely a space where children can play by themselves or take ‘time out’ while they’re processing emotions. It’s a place where they can learn about and shape their own identity.

This is a somewhat different approach to privacy than the one that’s often taken when thinking about children because it’s not about protecting children, it’s about enabling them. Giving a child their own room isn’t always going to lead to the best outcomes – I once used the privacy of a closed door to start a fire – but even when privacy doesn’t protect kids, it still matters to them.

This is why so many parents seriously debate whether (or when) they should snoop in a child’s room or read their text messages – intuitively they grasp the importance of trusting their children and giving them the space necessary to grow. Sometimes, by making mistakes and facing the consequences.

DEBATE: Do kids know how to protect their privacy? Sydney, 25 October, 6:30pm. Tickets available here.

However, much of this seems to change when we stop talking about physical privacy and instead discuss digital privacy. If privacy was a precarious notion for pre-internet children, it’s almost non-existent for many children today. In an essay in the Columbia Human Rights Law Review, Benjamin Shmueli and Ayelet Blecher-Prigat write:

Parents have always been able to invade their children’s privacy by going through their schoolbags, reading their personal diaries and the like, nowadays children and youth are seen as at risk from online predators, paedophiles, cyberbullies and other online dangers. Whereas "good parents" may have traditionally been encouraged to trust their children, today they are encouraged to safeguard their children, including by invading their privacy.

This is tricky. If there’s reason to believe children need private space for self-determination offline – even when it involves some personal risk – it’s hard to reconcile this with a tightly-controlled approach to online activity.

While our evolutionary impulse to protect our children is useful, it isn’t particularly good at determining risks as complex as the internet.

Of course, most parents will point out that there are differences between the internet and a bedroom. Fires aside, there’s much more risk of serious harm coming from misadventure online than there is from mucking about with the door closed.

The problem is we’re not very good at measuring complex risks accurately. In Risk: The Science and Politics of Fear, Dan Gardner explains why our unconscious risk-assessment systems are difficult to overcome: they’re based evolution and best suited for warding off wild animals, not monitoring digital predators. So while our evolutionary impulse to protect our children is useful, it isn’t particularly good at determining risks as complex as the internet. Plus, even when our head takes over and appraises the risks accurately, our unconscious impulses don’t go away, meaning we’re never too far from swooping in to check our little ones’ emails.

This is why thinkers like Shmueli and Blecher-Prigat think it’s crucial to think about children’s privacy as a right, just like we do for adults. Instead of a privilege that can be taken away or a tool designed to protect, giving children a right to privacy means it remains in force even when it works against parents.

It’s a scary thought, but if online privacy is necessary to enable self-determination, it might be the only way to facilitate children’s development. ‘Safety first’ might not be the best motto.

Matt Beard is a reformed pyromaniac working as an ethicist and writer at The Ethics Centre. 

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