Developing a Sense of Privacy

by: Dan Florell, Ph.D.

“Please mom! All of the other girls in my grade already have an account. I am missing out on everything,” pleaded the girl.

The mother was torn on whether to let her 12 year old daughter have an Instagram account. She knew that most of her daughter’s classmates were on Instagram and that is where they tended to hang out and socialize.

It was so different from when the mother was growing up. She used to hang out at the mall when she wanted to be with her friends. The mother never had to worry about all of the issues surrounding the use of social media. One of the mother’s greatest areas of concern was protecting her daughter’s privacy.

It seems like the media is full of stories of young teenagers who disclose too much information and it ends up having unintended consequences. One of the reasons this occurs is that tweens and teenagers often lack a sense of privacy.

A sense of privacy is something that develops in children as they get older. Initially, children have no sense of privacy. When they are very little, children think that everybody knows everything about them. This is why their conversations usually lack context and contributes to the difficulty adults have in talking to 3 year olds.

When children reach Kindergarten, they become aware that they can have their own thoughts that no one else knows about. This the first sign that a sense of privacy is developing. However, children are still used to their parents and teachers knowing all about them so they have poor filters on what information to keep to themselves and what to tell others.

As children progress through elementary school, they develop a better filter regarding what to disclose and what to keep themselves. Parents will often talk to their children about not giving information to strangers they meet. Yet, this often does not translate into the online world of social media.

Social media is not a stranger and most of the time, tweens and teenagers are using it in familiar settings and with friends. Many even use the privacy controls that various social media outlets provide so that only friends can see their content.

However, tweens and teenagers also rely on what other people are putting on social media as a way to gauge what is an acceptable level of disclosure. This is where parents can step in and let their tweens and teenagers know that what is typical may not be safe. Pictures and messages can be easily forwarded beyond their immediate circle of friends to others.

One way to describe posting information on social media is putting the information on a billboard along the highway that everyone can see. This includes the various companies that provide the social network services such as Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, and Twitter.

Tweens and teenagers often do not realize that all of the “free” services that are provided do have a cost. The cost is all of the personal information about them that can be used by marketers and others. This hidden cost is another reason to stress to them why privacy matters and that it is something important to think about.

Parents need to have conversations with their tweens and teenagers about the concept of privacy and why it should be valued. This is particularly true when talking about participating in social media. Make sure to have those conversations so they will not regret something they have posted in the future.

This article was published in the Richmond Register daily Friday on March 11, 2016.

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