Hackable: Children’s Digital Literacy and Voluntary Disclosure

(Part 3 of series)

Children and young adults spend significant time online using apps that collect massive amounts of information, but they may lack digital literacy. Schools also collect much more information than they used to. The voluntarily divulged information in an online profile plus any hackable identifiable data make children vulnerable to future and current ethical breaches. I am concerned about whether the first prong of privacy, confidentiality, will remain meaningful. For a claim of confidentiality to be ethically (and usually legally) enforceable, people must reasonably expect confidentiality. Because adults often do not supervise children’s use of apps, creators of digital platforms, especially social media should be legally compelled to ensure sharing is within groups. The easy ability to share to the public undermines any future claim of confidentiality. Children who become adults and wish to erase their social media footprint will encounter difficulty and have no law or arguably even ethical basis to claim privacy violations.

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The open issue that is also problematic is the relationship between confidentiality and constitutionally protected privacy or a right to be left alone. (A previous post explains two aspects of privacy.) Louis Brandeis referred to a “right to be let alone” before becoming a Supreme Court Justice. He predicted that things meant to be “whispered in the closet” may truly be shouted from “house-tops” as new technologies arise. While he was referring to rudimentary cameras, social media has brought new meaning to shouting from the house-tops.

When a Young Adult Wants a Past Kept Private

Young people generally have less digital literacy and are not contemplating how information could later be incriminating. Many have sizable digital footprints. There are many examples of problematic digital breadcrumbs hurting young adults. For example, a transgender young adult who could not erase evidence and pictures of a younger self that were gender specific may suffer from the permanency of the digital footprint. Having released information, people cannot control its perpetual existence and internet footprint. Many people have had college acceptances revoked due to inappropriate, racist, or offensive social media posts. The digital landscape also makes sexual or inappropriate pictures “go viral” ruining reputations and causing harm. (Societal views destigmatizing sexuality may be helpful in that context.) Cyber-bullying brings another ill-motivated way to attack a peer. Pictures, videos, and posts can become collateral in elaborate schemes.

Despite the risks, children and young adults divulge information online, on social media, and send pictures electronically. The ethics of the public digital footprint of young people must be contextualized. Social media eliminates the ability of young people to make the learning mistakes that pre-social media generations could make. Changing societal standards, even political correctness, can make well-meaning posts become obsolete and offensive. The ever-changing way that Americans discuss race, ethnicity, gender, and politics makes last year’s acceptable remarks next year’s prohibited remarks. Since such remarks may be posted on social media, adults must address the ethical issues arising when society holds children’s past remarks to a current level of perfection. Last year’s woke statements will not seem woke in another few years.

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Digital Literacy or Creating Best Practices for Adults?

Approaches to voluntary disclosures by children must incorporate complex concepts:

  • Is the disclosure truly voluntary? (social media is pervasive)
  • How can privacy’s other prong (freedom from government and other (private) intrusion) be harnessed to mitigate the harm of losing the confidentiality prong of privacy?
  • How can we consider (and predict) future consequences, harm to future adults?
  • Turning it all on its head, can society destigmatize some of the words and behaviors depicted on social media? (sexy, spoke about race in a term later outdated, cultural appropriation that was accepted at the time, strong political views expressed with childish enthusiasm in tweet lengths, commentary on current events without enough information)
  • What is the role of adults in behaviors that shame children and adolescents who post viewpoints formed when they were young, vulnerable to peer pressure, or mimicking parental views that they later reconsider as adults, etc.? (e.g. racist posts by young people may signify a parenting lapse, but the child will pay years later if running for office and applying to jobs.)
  • Can standards of fairness surround social media “mistakes” made by young people? Could government and employers enforce fairness? (The media is probably the worst, most judgmental, least forgiving entity.)

An approach to children’s digital footprint must be broader than the tech community, yet the burden cannot be placed on parents to oversee every letter typed in and every picture posted. Engaging broader society in forming cultural acceptance of mistakes made publicly would help provide children with the ability to learn from mistakes. As things are, the costs are too high. Evolving viewpoints and regrettable outfit choices are a valuable part of growing up. Shaming based on public disclosures that used to be private (unless someone snapped a picture and used it years later to incriminate) should not be tempting to adults. Adults engaging in virtue signaling exacerbate the issue, yet perhaps they can be rebranded as bullies.

feature Photo 85888318 © Marcel De Grijs | Dreamstime.com

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