Time We Gave The Kids Some Credit

Kids do daft things – that’s a fact. But when it comes to the web, we need to accept they’re often savvier than they look, says Sophie Curtis

The debate around online privacy always fascinates me, mainly because the way people view the issue varies so much from generation to generation.

Talk to my mum and she’ll tell you she is completely horrified by the idea that people with whom she is only distantly acquainted could get an insight into her daily life, simply by looking at her Facebook profile. As a result, everything she puts on Facebook is carefully tailored to project an image of a professional, intelligent, cultured woman – which of course she is.

At the other end of the spectrum, I got a shock myself a few weeks ago when a picture of a 14-year-old girl posing provocatively in her underwear popped up in my news feed. It turned out to be a friend of my younger cousin who had uploaded the picture of herself. My cousin (who I am friends with on Facebook) had commented on photo – thankfully telling her to take it down – hence its appearance in my news feed.

Child protection online

This is exactly the kind of behaviour that child protection campaigns by the likes of the Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre and the Department for Education aim to tackle. Speaking on Tuesday at the Westminster eForum on building a safer cyberspace, Alex Nagle, CEOP’s head of streategy, partnerships and governance, said that young people need guidance in order to understand and identify risk.

Nikki Waid, deputy head of marketing for the DoE, also touted the government’s ‘green cross code’ for online safety, launched earlier this year, which encourages children to “Zip it, Block it, Flag it”. The slogan is designed to encourage children to keep their online passwords private, block people who intimidate them, and alert someone if anything online has upset them.

While there is undeniably a demand for online safety guidelines – and the “ZBF” campaign will no doubt prove an invaluable tool in primary schools – I can’t help thinking that older kids will just find this patronising. After all, the majority of teenagers have a far more sophisticated knowledge of the web than both their parents and their teachers.

That 14-year-old girl put pictures of herself on Facebook because she wanted people to look at them. She may just be a daft teenager, but I would bet she knows exactly what her privacy settings are – letting ‘friends of friends’ see your pictures is not a default setting. In other words, she knew the risks and she chose to take them.

Kids know better?

The truth is, while many parents are desperately trying to keep tabs on what their children do online, the young people continue to remain a step ahead. It won’t take many kids long to work out how to deactivate the adult filtering on your family computer, and if they want to access rated online content they will just lie about their age – it’s absurd to think they won’t.

The difference between the generations, as Waid pointed out, is a question of confidence. Children who have grown up with social networking have no problem splashing their details about online – everybody does it. They see the Internet as a right; it represents freedom, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing.

Despite the controversy surrounding Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg’s comments last year that privacy is no longer a social norm, I’m starting to think he wasn’t far off. Many youngsters have even embraced this – it is the older generation that find the suggestion of lost privacy so repellent.

Alex Everett – a youth delegate for the Internet Governance Forum and the youngest panel member at the Westminster eForum – pointed out that, if anything, most young people are more worried about being left out than risking over-exposure. That is why websites like privacy-conscious Diaspora and schools network Radiowaves will never provide a true alternative to Facebook, because they are simply not the cool place to be.

Rather than accepting this fact, however, many parents and teachers spend time scare-mongering, warning about everything from paedophiles prowling the web to future employers scouting out applicants on Facebook. Of course, these are real risks, and young people do need to know the facts and be taught to treat the web with respect. But in a world where the real and the virtual have become so intertwined, most young people are far savvier than we give them credit for.

There is no silver bullet to the problems of safety and privacy online – I don’t think anyone would claim there is. But perhaps it’s time we stopped preaching to young people and started listening to them, because they could probably teach us a thing or two.