My name is danah boyd and I'm a Principal Researcher at Microsoft Research and the founder/president of Data & Society. Buzzwords in my world include: privacy, context, youth culture, social media, big data. I use this blog to express random thoughts about whatever I'm thinking.

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erosion of youth privacy – the local panopticon

For those who read my quote in the SF Chronicle today, i want to clarify it a bit as i think privacy and the next generation is a critical issue. I am quoted as having said:

“Teens today grow up in a state of constant surveillance where there is no privacy,” said Danah Boyd, a Ph.D. candidate at UC Berkeley’s School of Information, who studies youth culture and online communities. “So they can’t really have an idea of it being lost. The risk of the government or a corporation coming in and looking at their MySpace site is beyond their consideration.”

This is accurate, but it’s missing the context that makes it meaningful and useful to people concerned with privacy. Teens are growing up in a constant state of surveillance because parents, teachers, school administrators and others who hold direct power over youth are surveilling them. Governments and corporations are beyond their consideration because the people who directly affect their lives have created a more encompassing panopticon than any external structure could ever do. The personal panopticon they live in (managed by people they know and see daily) is far more menacing, far more direct, far more traumatic. As a result, youth are pretty blase about their privacy in relation to government and corporate. Cuz realistically, in comparison to parents/teachers, what can they do?

Privacy folks should be worried about where privacy is going with the next generation, but the erosion is happening on the home front, not on the corporate/governmental level. Unless we figure out how to give youth privacy in their personal lives, they are not going to expect privacy in their public lives.

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10 comments to erosion of youth privacy – the local panopticon

  • To someone who was a child in the late 50s and 60s, it seems like the parental presence has diminished over time. Instead of mother staying home, now both parents have careers outside the home.

    But from my study of MySpace, it is very clear that teens and young adults have little concern about privacy invasion from government and corporations. That surprised me. Also, until recently, it seemed like few teens had any awareness that posting on MySpace was really posting to everyone in the entire world, including parents, teachers, local police, etc.

    It seems like the definition of “privacy” is changing. A history professor is writing a book that claims privacy is actually a relatively new concept, that it didn’t exist in Medieval times, for example.

    You claim that kids/teens feel like their parents have created a panopticon. If true, might this be in part a reaction from “guilt” at not having given the kids proper attention all through their childhood, but especially when they were very young?

    The old concept of “quality time” always bothered me. Instead of giving the young kids the time they actually needed and deserved, they received less time, but supposedly it was “better quality” time.

    My wife and I were rebels from the start. We gave our kids enormous amounts of time when they were young, and strove to guide them into being very independent by the time they became young adults, fully empowered to undertake whatever course in life that seemed fitting to them. That has been our goal, anyway. We’re obviously not perfect…

    We’ve watched with dismay the way people “raise” kids has changed over the past 25 years or so. From lots of time with Mom (at least) into a method of parenting where there isn’t a whole lot of meaningful contact, there’s just shuttling the kids off to here, there, and everywhere to activities and events that are “good for them”…

    Then, the parents make sure everything went fine, after the fact, since they didn’t participate in any of it. Perhaps that’s part of the panopticon you talk about: the “making sure” everything went “fine”.

    It’s hard to become your child’s lifelong friend (which is what I think should be the goal of every parent) if you raise them that way.

  • Great use of the term and word panopticon. Do you condone the privacy or lack thereof in youth lives. I’m hardly a parent, but I would definitely be concerned with who my kids were chatting online with. I think we’ve never had corporate and government privacy and that it is indeed a fairly new concern only because people are becoming cognizant of the bevy of info about them already available and in the possession of governments and corporations.

  • Esme Vos

    I am not sure that kids today are being surveilled any more than kids were in the 50s and 60s. They go out more (especially girls who now go out unchaperoned), have mobile phones, computers, and other devices.

    I think the US and US teens in particular are far less concerned about privacy than Europeans in general because the latter have direct experience with fascist regimes (WWII). There are people still alive today who remember what it was like to be surveilled and they still talk about this to their grandchildren. So the experience of really evil government is still alive in the memories of many Europeans.

  • do you mean, “not on the corporate/government level” or “not *just* on the corporate/govrernment level?”

    i can see your point re: privacy in the home, but do you really think that, for example, consumer privacy hasn’t been eroded? (i’m curious because this is a new idea and i want to know more).

    what about the recent news about the nsa? (then again, if our privacy information has *always* been recorded, the only news might be that they have better tools to organize it)

  • I understand what you are saying – from a particular point of view it seems like parents and teachers are “invading” privacy of teens on myspace, facebook etc.

    But – as an earlier commenter says – if you are talking about “privacy” in relation to these grownups – it is a very *situated* notion of privacy that you are using – and of course U.S. based newspapers love that notion of privacy. Yet – these are the same media sources that enhance moral panics that are based in a contradiction of that notion of independence and privacy for the teen… I can elaborate on this some other time.

    I also found in my use-end based studies of myspace etc that not only (as the earlier commenter said) that

    “until recently, it seemed like few teens had any awareness that posting on MySpace was really posting to everyone in the entire world, including parents, teachers, local police, etc.”

    but also that semiotically and hypertextually – the kids are more sophisticated in how they disguise themselves in online spaces – in a sense *their* space (and this is regardless of age actually – we’ve been doing this on MOO and MUDs for years as well). And “generation” gaps are generation gaps – whether online or offline – based in parents not actually conversing with teenage children or not knowing what they do in their peer groups – so its not unique to “cyber” space – but more of a “teen” space thing that overlaps with various myspace based interfacial social, cultural and even technical literacies.
    ____

    in response to the notion of panopticon – both in your post and that of the commenter (the same one I have been referring to throughout this post) who wrote:

    “You claim that kids/teens feel like their parents have created a panopticon. If true, might this be in part a reaction from “guilt” at not having given the kids proper attention all through their childhood, but especially when they were very young?”

    The notion of panopticon – we should remember – is not just about visually seen or being seen as seeing.

    It is about an internalized disciplining mechanism – I dont have to “see” the act or behaviour I disapprove of, for the child to feel guilty. Think potty training?

    Perhaps parents have not asserted enough of this sort of “discipline” and perhaps there are too many spaces unfamiliar to parental generations (in terms of culture, literacy and generation) that is why there is a perception that actual continued monitoring of their online (or offline) social life will take the place of this kind of parenting and teaching panopticon?

  • Mickey Coalwell

    “Supervision,” “monitoring,” “protection,” and “surveillance” are all terms which are used euphemistically and often palliatively. But they all point to a diminished sense of private space in our personal lives.

    “None of your damn business” is not an acceptable reply to even unwanted queries these days because the idea of privacy has changed so much in the last 50 years.

    As for young people, they are quite sophisticated about finding ways to get privacy –beginning with just not caring about. Yes, they are remarkably blase about privacy in relation to “big brother” oversight, as Danah points out. So they ignore it. Talk about transvaluation of all values! It’s an interesting step in social evolution.

    This might be a useful approach to take towards privacy. If you simply redefine what’s private, then you diminish the power of those who seek to uncover it.

  • Certainly you are spot on re teens not being concerned with governmental intrusions into their privacy. But give me a break … to “figure out how to give youth privacy in their personal lives” is to figure out how to abdicate our obligation to parent.

  • Harry Regis

    Ah my precocious Danah… one day you will have children and be forced to grow up.

    HR

  • Sam

    Ah well, I won’t call blogs the end of privacy, I’d rather see them as a tool to obfuscate whatever you like 🙂

  • From what I can see in the comments, two key themes have been picked up.

    First, the issue of a parent needing to know what is happening with their children in order to guide and protect. This seems vital in todays world – whether through moral panic or that threats are actually greater today than they were 10, 20, 30 years ago. If you are a parent you don’t want to take chances, you want to protect, and I don’t think that instinct has changed. This may give rise to the second issue.

    Second, the apparent connection between generation and concern for privacy – the younger the generation, the less they are concerned for privacy.

    I think danah is quite right that you can’t know you have lost something until you know you had something.

    I’m just in the middle of reading George Orwells 1984, and you can see just this “what have I lost” issue between Winston, about 39 and Julia, about 23. Winston still has vague memories of a time of freedom and therefore “knows” that something is wrong, whereas Julia has grown up whilst the party have had complete control. She does not fully appreciate or understand much of what he is talking about or why she should worry about it. Sorry I am vague about the story, but I don’t want to give too much for anyone who hasn’t read it and wants to (I highly recommend it, it is very relevant to the issues today :-)).

    I also agree with Kevin’s comments above, that we are giving up a lot by trying to get “quality time” instead of more time. Watching your children in the creche via web cam is no substitute for spending time with them and is the start of the panopticon.

    Joseph McCarthy would have welcomed the sources of information appearing today ;-).