Internet privacy: Generation M parents panic

Teenagers with 24-hour access to mobile media are wandering into what their parents see as an internet privacy nightmare. Generation M, however, is growing up online – having fun and suffering as teenagers are want to do. Find out why parents are uneasy, what kids are up to and how technology is changing generational attitudes towards privacy.

Internet privacy: Generation M parents panic

A month or so ago I went for a beer with a friend of mine – a young (24-year old) American girl who has just started a new teaching job in a primary school in a village near Murcia. The beers would lead to a startling revelation about how two generations are starting to clash over such deep-seated cultural concepts as privacy, at a time when mobile digital technology use is exploding amongst teenagers and children.

As we sipped the first beers, I asked her about how she was coping with the stresses of her new job so she whipped out her iPhone and showed me a photo: “Aren’t they just the cutest little things, sleeping like that?”

I agreed that it was a wonderfully heart-warming image of a few little Murcian children happily sleeping siestas after lunch at her new school. But there was, I suggested, a problem: she was showing me the photo on her iPhone and she had uploaded the photo to her Facebook page.

“So what?” She asked; isn’t that what iPhones and Facebook are for? Indeed they are and when I went to look at my friend’s Facebook photo page, I was astounded to see thousands of photos of her and her friends stretching back years. I’m sure a large number of them were uploaded from her iPhone.

I explained to my friend that I thought that here in Spain, laws about photography and children are different than in the US. I certainly have lots of friends with young children and I could imagine their alarned reaction if they saw a photo of their kids at school on their teacher’s Facebook page, regardless of the teacher’s Facebook privacy settings.

For my friend, however, it was so totally normal to have taken a picture of her cute new little kids to show her friends on Facebook and let them all know about her new job.

We talked about last year’s press riot over the photos of Zapatero’s daughters at the official gala dinner with the Obamas in New York. Most Spaniards didn’t care at all about the Spanish Child Protection Law which the Zapateros had used to unpublish the images from the Whitehouse Flickr stream and were much more concerned about the shocking way in which the girls were dressed and what that implied about their prime minister’s parenting and personal values.

I was interested to see how the following week – when the US and British media picked up on the story – commentators were equally shocked at the teenage girls’ chosen attire and the fact that such a law even existed in Spain allowing parents to seek an injunction preventing the publication of photos of their children.

My friend was sensitive and wise enough to understand the implications of what we were talking about and immediately deleted the photo from her Facebook page. She absolutely wouldn’t want that to be problem for anyone, especially not her new pupils, their parents or her new school.

But all of this does pose a fascinating question which we need to consider in detail: Generation M is coming of age, is starting to enter the world of work and is starting to be responsible for others.

Confused of Calcutta writes:

“Children born between 1982 and 1998 are now beginning to enter the workforce; while they’ve been called many things, I continue to use the term Generation M. [And that’s not because of any personal pride in coming up with the term; rather, the characteristics that define this generation seem to have a lot of “M” about them — mobile, multimedia, multitasking, multichannel and so on.”

Is this going to be a problem? Who is right about privacy? How far should parents go in protecting their children’s privacy and in educating their children about this concept when their children’s generation has a completely different attitude towards the concept?

Spanish Instituo de Empresa technology lecturer Enrique Dans has also talked and blogged about this phenomenon repeatedly:

“We are experiencing a change of direction. I don’t know if they are not aware of what is happening, if they haven’t really thought about it, if they don’t care or if they just like it like that. But they’re different. Their level of openness and transparency with the information they publish exceeds by a long way what a person from the previous generation would think proper; if they were to publish the same information, it would be seen as extravagant. They are different, and these differences are not random and nor are they isolated incidents: they represent a trend. And the consequences of that, in the environment we now live in, are going to be profound.”

Look at some of the data provided by the Pew Internet research center:

  • 93% of teenagers use the internet;
  • 64% of online teenagers engage in some type of content creation
  • teenage girls continue to dominate most elements of content creation. 35% of all teenage girls blog, compared with 20% of boys. 54% of wired girls post photos online, compared with 40% of boys;
  • 55% of online teens have profiles on social network sites like Facebook or MySpace;
  • 47% of online teens post photos where others can see them and 89% say that people comment on their photos some of the time;
  • 28% of the entire teen population are classed as ‘super-communicators’ who use landline phones, cell phones, text messaging, social networks, instant messaging, blogs and email;

A New York Times article on teaching children about the dangers of the Internet notes that: “the Internet is where children are growing up. The average young person spends 7.5 hours a day with a computer, television or smart phone. (…) almost every extracurricular hour is devoted to online life.

But with social networking sites like Facebook coming under increasing pressure in some countries to do much more to help vulnerable children who use their sites, how is Generation X – which did not grow up with the internet and has one opinion about what privacy is – supposed to teach Generation M – which has grown up in a digital world with a completely different idea about privacy – what to do?

“The first wave of parental anxiety about the Internet focused on security and adult predators. That has given way to concerns about how their children are acting online toward friends and rivals, and what impression their online profiles might create in the minds of college admissions officers or future employers.”

Organisations like Common Sense Media might help, with their principles for teenage media use and their dedication to “improving the lives of kids and families by providing the trustworthy information, education, and independent voice they need to thrive in a world of media and technology.”

We are still, however, waking up to these differences as Generation M’s children turn into teenagers and the teenagers turn into adults and start entering the real world.

What would you do to protect your child’s privacy and how would you teach them about technology? Or would they be teaching you?