What does it mean when we talk about privacy in the information age? Does “privacy” mean the same thing it did 20, even 10 years ago, before we all walked around with devices in our pockets?
That’s the question we were confronted with when TeenSafe launched in Australia early this month. There was controversy over whether or not it’s okay to “spy” on teens - whether invading their privacy was worth it if it could protect them from the dangers of our digital age.
It’s a valid question, and one worth debating. But we have to start at the beginning: how much privacy can we expect online? Let’s be real: If you are active on social media, at any age, you aren’t being private. You’re sharing information — and not just your friend’s list. We know that at their core, social networks are ad-based companies that collect your data and use it for reasons outside of sharing your latest status update.
When I first handed my own children smartphones, social media was still in its early stages. The most popular app for teens, Instagram, hadn’t even made it to the market. But I was still shocked at how much teens in their age group were willing to share on social media.
Teens are happy to share information about their lives, from the most mundane details to even worrisome information like their school address and phone number. They are digital natives, and see the digital world as a perfectly safe place to share their thoughts. They worry less about sharing information with third parties, unlike adults.
Their major “privacy” concern, instead, is a reluctance to share information with parents. Teens see technology as part of a separate world — it’s their world, and parents can only be intruders there. They don’t want to tell us what they’re doing, who they’re talking to — mostly because they’re worried it’ll be used against them.
And that’s what most people fear. In the information age, privacy isn't about sharing information. It’s about how that information is used once it’s already been shared.
When an overwhelming majority of teens go online almost everyday because of the ease and access provided by smartphones, that means they’re putting a lot of information out there for the world to use as it sees fit.
That was the reason I co-founded TeenSafe. I didn’t realize that my kid’s lives would be so available to the outside world, and there wasn’t anything available for me to supervise and teach them safe online habits, like I would take them to driver’s ed and doctor’s appointments.
Parents need information in order to make good decisions for how to teach their children to be responsible online, and to tackle tough topics like sexting, online predators, and cyberbullying. When half of all children have been bullied online, and less than 10 percent will report it to an adult, I don’t think we can justify not paying attention, especially when bullying is a major contributor to the thousands of teen suicide attempts that occur every single day.
But we need to strike a balance. TeenSafe is not a tool to spy on our children’s every movement. Teens are completely justified in wanting a space of their own — they’re seeking independence from the authority figures in their lives, and that’s natural.
Instead we believe there’s a difference between monitoring and spying. Spying is an inherently intrusive act where people are trying to get information for their own ends, while monitoring is focused on helping parents understand what’s going on in the lives of their children so they can decide on the appropriate course of action. In that way, we believe that parents should begin monitoring their kids from an early age, tell their children they are monitoring them, and ease off monitoring as they get older and demonstrate their ability to act appropriately.
Part of living in the digital world is being a responsible digital citizen, and it’s our job as parents to impart those lessons. Teens need to understand the long-term consequences of their actions, and need to know that they can talk to their parents about any issue they face.
By working with teens instead of simply watching them without telling them, we believe it’s possible to establish a relationship based on mutual respect and an understanding that privacy will be given to those who have earned it.
It may not be free of controversy, but we’re ultimately doing it to help children — and that’s what truly matters to us.
Ameeta Jain is cofounder of TeenSafe, a monitoring system for mobile devices.