Chapter 2: Nothing is Private

“It’s dangerous when people are willing to give up their privacy.”
 -activist Noam Chomsky


Our digital tools give us the illusion of privacy.  We now live in an age of social media with “private account” settings and collaborative (shared) documents with access controls.  Despite these apparent options to make things private and secure, anyone who is in the “circle of trust” can take a screenshot of a private post to share as a digital image file or make a copy of a confidential doc to call their own.  How does one protect information and one’s image in the virtual world and advise students on such matters?

Pause before Posting or “PbP it”

Adults over 25 remember when the way to keep something private was a handwritten note, a face-to-face conversation, or a landline phone call if you could stretch the cord far enough to get out of the kitchen.  Today, our students actually need to be taught how to manage their privacy, and it is not as intuitive or simple as it was for us back then.

Unfortunately, the popular social media applications Facebook and Twitter co-opted the words “friend” and “privacy” from our English lexicon.  For children who turn 13 in today’s world, they may have a very different understanding for these words and not appreciate their true meaning.

“Privacy” has essentially two traditional meanings.  The first is a state of being alone.  The second is the state of being away from public attention.  
“Nothing is private” means, that when online, there is really no way to be alone or any expectation that you can be away from public attention.  Why? Because in the age of screenshots, anything you send via digital text or image format can be easily “captured” and forwarded to others or posted as a digital image.  Therefore, social media sites that use the term “privacy settings” really create an oxymoron (yes, like “jumbo shrimp”)-you cannot really have “social media privacy!”

You can look up the definition of “friend,” but I doubt you need to do so since you probably have a few of your own.  Your parents taught you manners and other social norms growing up hoping you would learn to make friends-persons you like and enjoy being with and for whom you can reciprocate such feelings.  Thanks to Facebook, the status of “friend” clouds the traditional meaning of the world friend for our students.  Take 3 minutes to read this nice synopsis of this phenomenon by Joseph P. Kahn published in the Boston Globe in May of 2011.  I have some “friends” on Facebook with over 500 “friends.”  Are all these people really true, intimate friends? Of course not!  Some are friends. Some are acquaintances that also have Facebook accounts and some are only online acquaintances met via Facebook. How many intimate details does one really want to share with someone they have never met in person?

Given there is not real privacy online AND there are few real friends online, how does one keep truly sensitive information or raw feelings protected? First and foremost, try to explain to students that they need to think before they hit “send” or “post.” Students in Environmental Science classes at Providence Day have been asked to follow these simple guidelines when blogging.

“I will maintain common, face-to-face social conventions and boundaries to avoid circumstances which are or could be perceived as inappropriate while using social networking, blogs, or any other interactive websites”.  

Credit goes to Alex Ragone, Director of MS and US at the City and County School, NYC for crafting these guidelines.

Take Action

Simply put, be polite and avoid posting anything you would regret.  Better yet, try to explain the “21st Century Golden Rule” and consider anything posted online to be “public and permanent.”

There are several approaches to helping students with the concept of “nothing is private.”

1. Address the expectation of privacy.

  • Lead a discussion or set up a debate as to if anyone has an expectation of privacy in the digital age.  If so, who and where?
  • Ask students to research situations where famous persons have assumed something was private, only to have it exposed.  If you need suggestions, ask them to look into Alec Baldwin’s voicemail to his daughter or Jennifer Lawrence’s iCloud photo stream account.
  • Ask students to list strategies to keep something sensitive truly private. Discuss which are likely to work, or not, and why.
  • Ask students to rank order which media is “most secure:” Discuss.
    • email
    • phone call
    • individual text
    • handwritten letter
    • face-to-face conversation
    • direct message feature in any social media site
    • group text
    • a messaging app (like Voxer, Facebook messenger, etc…) versus cell phone text

2.  Get them thinking before acting or “Pause before Posting (PbP).”
Often, when threatened, we go into “fight or flight” mode. Teach students about the physiological response associated with a threat.  Then, discuss this strategy to counter the natural tendency to react immediately:

  • Problem sitting-pause first and calm yourself. Give your body time to let the adrelene hormone decrease in your blood stream.  If you must get your thoughts or feelings in text, maybe put that email in “drafts” until tomorrow morning.
  • Problem setting-think hard about the context of the online post, text, or email.  Start with assuming no harm by the sender-maybe you read in a tone or took it out of context or maybe it was not meant for you.  If the info is offensive, think hard about what the sender is afraid of that caused him or her to do it.
  • Problem solving-choose a course of action.  Maybe ask the person to meet you to discuss the issue or call them on the phone instead of putting your feelings in text or retaliating with an equally offense post in at a public site.

Remind your students of this language; PbP or Pb4P and “problem sitting & setting, before problem solving.”

3.  Teach them about managing privacy settings.
Review how to set private settings in Google Drive and other Google tools.  Students need to understand the default privacy setting and how to make sure that a sensitive document cannot be accessed by anyone on the internet.

On your iPad, go to settings, then

  • Click Privacy.  Here, you can turn off location services if you do not want your location to be tracked. You can also do this for specific apps.  Scroll to the bottom and you can limit tracking by companies that push advertising at you.
  • Click Passcode.  Here you could set a passcode to get into the device and so, keep anyone from violating your privacy by searching it or using it. We ask students to not do this, as if we recover a lost device it may be hard to tell who it belongs to.  This is a good time to remind students to never share passwords with anyone except their parents.

Most tools have privacy settings. Choose a different tool to discuss once a month with your students.

How do you take action? Share your ideas here. 

Lesson Plans, Activities, & More

Grades K-2: Keep it Private

Students learn that many websites ask for information that is private and discuss how to responsibly handle such requests.

Grades 6-8: Secret Sharer

Students look beyond protecting their own privacy to respecting the privacy of others online.

Grades 6-8: Top Secret

Students review what they have learned about protecting their privacy online and respecting the privacy of others.

Grades 6-8: Exploring the Concept of Online Privacy

Examine reading with purpose in the context of online privacy

Grades 9-12: Private Today, Public Tomorrow

Students reflect on their responsibility to protect the privacy of others when posting information about them online.

Grades 9-12: Oops! I Broadcast it on the Internet

Students are introduced to the benefits of sharing information online and the potential risks of sharing inappropriate information.

Grades 9-12: Overexposed: Sexting and Relationships

Students explore the risks and responsibilities of carrying out romantic relationships in the digital world.

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