Sunday, May 1, 2011

TMI? Children's disclosure of personal information online

The world in which children live is inherently full of risk. Some might argue that a risk-free childhood is no childhood at all. However, the ubiquity of the internet and social media in the lives of children today presents a range of risks which differ not so much in kind with those of the past, but in potential. The ease with which information, text and images can be stored, copied, manipulated, replicated and misused, (Livingstone and Brake, 2010) has created a need for vigilance and action on the part of parents and educators. 

Children's disclosure of personal information on social networking sites in New Zealand is an issue of high public interest, as revealed by the current media attention given to it, such as this report on Close Up  about adolescent use of Facebook. In addition, the 2010 report by the Privacy Commissioner, 'Individual Privacy and Personal Information', identified the information children put on the internet about themselves as the issue that caused most concern among respondents, as it also did in 2008. 

However,  it remains a desperately under-researched field, making it difficult for parents, educators and policy-makers to make informed decisions about how best to impart the skills needed for children to become good digital citizens, with a high level of awareness of their rights and responsibilities towards themselves and others.

Last year as part of my post-grad study I reviewed a lot of the literature around this issue and drew up a research proposal. Perhaps one of the most significant findings of a number of the articles I surveyed was that generally young people are using social networking websites responsibly and consistently with how they conduct their offline behaviour, and that the actual risk from online predators is very, very low. Yet the small percentage of those who do take privacy risks are of sufficient numerical size (considering the millions of users of social networking websites) to justify considerable concern from researchers, educators and parents (De Souza & Dick, 2008; Williams & Merton, 2008; Hinduja & Patchin, 2008).

Below is a summary of the research proposal I put together that highlights many of the key issues and how I would go about researching them.

A further implication of the literature that came through again and again is that any effort to increase privacy awareness and protection skills must include parents. Because many schools approach social networking websites with caution, or block them outright, young people tend to spend most of their online social networking time at home, or on mobile devices. Many studies show that parental supervision of online behaviours reduces the amount of risk-taking behaviour, but that the awareness and skill levels of those parents was often not sufficient to provide the support that young people needed (Ofcom, 2008; Berson et al., 2008; Sharples et al., 2009; De Souza & Dick, 2008; Berson & Berson, 2006; Steeves and Webster, 2008;
Youn 2005; Hinduja & Patchin, 2009; Wirth et al., 2009)

Part of this is no doubt due to the rapid pace at which the technology and habits of use of young people change. It may well be that if a school wishes to be most effective in protecting its young people from the risks of personal information disclosure, then the school has a role to play in educating parents through seminars and workshops, and must see this work as a partnership. Hope (2002) and Ofsted (2010) both affirm the importance of schools and families working together in partnership, with schools needing to be proactive in initiating this partnership. The research mentioned above by the Privacy Commissioner, as well as the fact that increasing numbers of older adults are using social networking sites like Facebook, suggests that there could be considerable demand for such a programme.

How aware are you of how your students are using social networking sites? How does your school involve parents in digital citizenship education? All thoughts and comments welcome!


  1. Hi Craig
    I agree with what you've said. I was wondering just this morning if Cybersafety and similar issues should be a set part of the curriculum. The values that we are modelling/teaching as expected in the curriculum flow over to online.

  2. Thanks Nathaniel. It's a good point and I think the technology is moving faster than the curriculum is responding to the times. I suppose it can be covered under the Health curriculum, keeping ourselves safe etc, but there is no requirement to teach it, as far as as I'm aware. Actually, a lot of it would come under the Key Competencies (Managing Self, Communicating etc). I think digital citizenship is multi-faceted, and needs to integrated through all of our uses of online tools, and not divorced from how we manage our face-to-face relationships as well. Cheers.

  3. Cybersafety is being introduced in schools now with parents also receiving a talk about it. I now know what POS means lol. Plus, have deleted almost all my facebook photos. The biggest thing is children realizing that the person they think they are speaking to may be someone totally different. Anyway, It's a great program. Contact the NZ police to find out more.

  4. Thanks for your comment - this is becoming an increasingly important issue, and involves a pretty complex skill set for children learning to manage themselves and their relationships. Also the awareness of creating a digital footprint which may follow them later in life. I'ma bit of a Facebook fan, but like you, tend to keep my photos off it! Which police programme are you referring to?