Talk entitled “Privacy, Technology and Children: The Problem in Context”

December 20, 2010 by · Leave a Comment
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Below is a talk I gave yesterday at the annual conference of the Israeli Law and Society Association. The “Benny and Ayelet” are two academic lawyers who have written a paper arguing for children’s right to privacy vis-a-vis their parents. Parental surveillance of children includes all sorts of filtering and monitoring programs that parents might install on their computers so they know what their kids are getting up on online, for instance. Enjoy!

My aim for today is to try and put the discussion of children’s right to privacy in a broader social context. The first thing that I should note is that my perspective is that of a sociologist, and from this perspective I am not going to take a stance on whether children should or should not have a right to privacy, though I do have something to say about the reasons for parents’ surveillance of their children, some of which are creations of the media and based on empirically unfounded anxieties. My understanding of both rights and privacy, at least as a legal concept, is far inferior to the other speakers’. So the question I ask here is: What is the social context of our current discussion? This is not merely an academic question. If we can identify the trends that are framing our discussion today, then this could give us a clue as to what might happen in the future.

Before I get going, I would like to outline the limitations of my talk: firstly, like Benny and Ayelet, I’m dealing with children’s relations with their parents. [I’m not dealing, for instance, with the activities of companies who place adverts for children on the internet, or who track children as they surf.] Also, I’m mainly restricting myself to children’s exposure to pornography and online grooming, which is when an adult develops a relationship with a child in order to sexually abuse him or her.

My argument is that current parental concerns about what children are doing online are twofold. One aspect is to do with the transgression of the boundary between the inside and the outside. This in turn is the consequence of quite long-term and extremely widespread changes in childhood, specifically, the definition of the outside as dangerous and the domestic as safe. What I want to argue is that surfing is an activity that brings the outside in and takes the inside out. The second aspect is to do with a particularly modern uncertainty about the boundaries between adults and children, or adulthood and childhood, especially in relation to sex and sexuality. In my conclusion, I suggest that current parental practices are embedded in two extremely deep-rooted conceptions of childhood.

So how do I establish these arguments?

As a starting point, we can say that if there is a call to recognize a right to privacy among children, it is because of a perception that their privacy is being invaded. There are all sorts of indicators that this is the case, or, to put it in more morally neutral terms, that today’s young people are subject to more forms of surveillance than children at any time in history (Howe & Strauss, 2000). It has even been suggested that ultra-sound technologies are part of this array of surveillance technologies, when fetuses are imaged to check for abnormalities.

This then raises the question, why is their privacy being invaded? What are parents, or adults more generally, hoping to achieve through these practices? In general terms, or more accurately, on their terms, parents want to protect their children. (But it might also be true that they don’t really know why they are doing it – in her study of CCTV in schools in England, Emmeline Taylor (2010) found that sometimes the school didn’t really have a well thought out rationale for placing cameras around the school, it just did it. In this sense it might be an act of imitation; or the principal might think he has to keep up with other schools. This might be the same with parents: they adopt certain practices though without necessarily knowing why. At bottom, though, the motivation is to protect children, very often from themselves.)

So what are the dangers that concern parents? There would appear to be two. The first, and most significant, are online predators and indecent material, especially pornography. This can be inferred from the marketing materials of companies who provide tracking and filtering software for parents. (For instance.) The second is a concern that young people in online environments are behaving in a way that is (1) inappropriate in and of itself; and (2) might have unwelcome unforeseen consequences by leaving digital footprints of youthful indiscretions. I am thinking here of the popular discourse, which has been shown to be inaccurate by study after study (boyd, 2007; Herring, 2007; Livingstone, 2008), that claims that the youth of today has no sense of shame or embarrassment.

One way of accounting for these concerns is in terms of a generation gap. One aspect of this is children’s relationship with technology. As Buckingham has noted: “new technology is often invested with our most intense fantasies and fears. It holds out the promise of a better future, while simultaneously provoking anxiety about a fundamental break with the past. In this scenario, children are perceived both as the avant-garde of media users and as the ones who are most at risk from new developments” (Buckingham, 2007). If we want to understand current concerns about youth and privacy, though, both those of privacy advocates and those of parents, we need to uncover the specific contours of the current day instantiation of this gap.

It is at this point that I shift my emphasis from privacy and technology to the sociology of childhood.

There has been a well-documented movement of children from the outside to the inside, and a change in the social meanings of those categories, which, I argue, is extremely relevant to our discussion. This movement might be said to have been ongoing since the expansion of formal schooling in mid-19th century Europe, and can be seen in the general idea that “the street” is no place for children. In recent decades the process has taken on specific characteristics, which, surprisingly enough, are very well captured by an ethnographic study of childhood in China. In her research, Orna Naftali describes a movement into the home among Chinese children, particularly since the emergence of capitalism. Children, she notes, are being given a room of their own. This is due to growing affluence in China and reduced fertility rates. Both of these are processes that have characterized the West in recent decades as well. There is also a sense in China, according to Naftali, that if a family only has one child, then they want the best for that child (Naftali, 2010). Interestingly, a study of privacy attitudes among Chinese teenagers shows them to have quite similar concerns to those of Western kids; it also shows differing views of what should be considered private among teenagers and their parents (Tang & Dong, 2006). (A study of children in Amsterdam that compares the 1950s with the 1990s discusses the movement of children from the outside to the inside too (Karsten, 2005)).

A related idea has been put forward by European sociologists of late modernity, and especially Ulrich Beck. For Beck, the contemporary era is one characterized by risk. As a result, children become the focus of their parents’ hopes and aspirations. “Late modern constructions of childhood become a form of moral rescue, a means by which adults try and recapture a sense of purpose and belonging”: this is how sociologist of childhood, William Corsaro describes it (Corsaro, 1997, p. 53). Similarly, Chris Jenks suggests that adults’ insecurities are projected onto children. This implies that the less control people feel they have over their own lives, the greater control they will try to assert over their children’s lives (Jenks, 1996).

This idea was also expressed by Wyness, who studied parents and children in Scotland in the early 1990s (Wyness, 1994). Asking whether parents know where their children are, he found that parents are worried about their children being outside, and would rather they bring friends home than hang out with them in the street. The television was part of this trend – a technological device that can help babysit the children.

So – and I am quite aware that I am painting in broad brush strokes here – there is a trend for children to be brought indoors and to be given more space within the home. This is to do with greater affluence and the re-conceptualization of the home as safe, and the outdoors, the “street”, as dangerous. I said at the beginning of my talk that the boundaries between inside and outside are being transgressed. I would now like to return to this notion.

[slide] The reason I say that the boundaries between inside and outside are being transgressed is that today, even when the child is at home, parents do not really know where he is. When the child is on the internet, he escapes the boundaries of the home. The internet undermines society’s attempts to create the domestic sphere as isolated and protected from the world outside. When surfing, the child brings the outside in. This is also an effect that has been attributed to the television (Harden, 2000), but my next point shows that the internet differs from the television quite dramatically.

I said earlier on that surfing the internet takes the inside out. My hunch here is that parental and societal anxiety about children’s self-over-exposure through social network sites can be conceptualized in terms of the inside – the domestic – making its way outside in a manner that is uncontrolled by the adults of the family. The domestic sphere is suddenly much less enclosed than we might think. There isn’t really time to develop this idea fully here, but there is an interesting literature about the importance of the secret in the construction of the family (Brown-Smith, 1998). It is also worth noting that the issue of family secrets has been brought up by researchers in the context of another medium of sharing, or over-sharing, according to some, namely the talk show.

The second aspect that I would like to touch upon as part of the explanation for parents’ invasion of children’s privacy is sexuality. This is of course relates to concerns about grooming and inappropriate contact with strangers, or “stranger danger”. Other practices that this relates to are surfing for pornography and sexting – the sending of sexually explicit photographs of oneself over mobile phones. Here, the problem is that the too-early onset of sexuality is seen as disrupting the project that we call raising children.

Childraising has by now been almost thoroughly psychologized. We are all familiar with Piaget and Erikson, even if we don’t know it, and we all talk about stages in development (Corsaro, 1997). We also know, thanks to Carol Gilligan and her feminist critique of Erikson’s theory of moral development, that what is presented as descriptive is very often normative (Gilligan, 1982). Thus, if children disrupt the proper order of things, this is a moral problem as much as anything else. This idea has deep roots in western culture: indeed, sociologists of childhood James, Jenks and Prout remind us that Freud himself thought that children seeing their parents, or other adults, in sexual congress could suffer from hysteria as a result (James, Jenks, & Prout, 1998, p. 39). Going even further back, Postman (1982), in his book on the disappearance of childhood, attributes to the ancient Romans the idea that young people should not be exposed to adult, and especially sexual, behavior.

If parents consider young people’s sexuality to be threatened by the use of the internet and other technologies, then this would help to explain why parents want to keep track of their children’s usage of these technologies – indeed, a recent report found that 65% of American parents have looked through their children’s text messages (Lenhart, Ling, Campbell, & Purcell, 2010).

We should notice here that parents, and society in general, are doing what Marcia Pally has called “image-blaming” (Pally, 1994), namely, holding pornographic images responsible for anti-social behavior. Image-blaming is an effective mechanism: it offers a simple, technological solution – preventing access to the images – to a perceived problem – over-sexed teenagers. Without going into this debate in depth, it at the very least suggests that parents’ attention is directed – by the media – to the wrong place. This is also the conclusion reached by John Holmes, who finds that the online dangers to young people are vastly over-stated. “There is little evidence to suggest young people are at significant risk and, where risks are present, most young people are able to safely negotiate them,” he says, adding that SNS users are “less likely to experience distressing stranger contact than non-users.” (Holmes, 2009, pp. 1177, 1184)

It is also reflective of the dominance of two particular models of childhood, as described by James, Jenks and Prout in their seminal book on the sociology of childhood (James, et al., 1998). For a right to privacy to take hold, I suggest that we would need to see the emergence of a different model of the child.

The two models, or ideal types, of childhood or children that play a role here are those of the innocent child and the evil child. The innocent child is the child whom we are contracted to bring up “in such a manner that their state of pristine innocence remains unspoilt by the violence and ugliness that surrounds them” (p. 14). This is the child whom parents are protecting from pornography and grooming. The view of the evil child, on the other hand, assumes that “evil, corruption, and baseness are primary elements in the constitution of ‘the child’” (p. 10). This is the child whom parents are preventing from accessing pornography in case it sets free the monster within. The point is that these two contrasting models of childhood give rise to identical practices: the strict surveillance of children’s online activities. If a single practice is able to draw on more than one deep social justification, then it may be hard to put an end to it. And this is without explicitly discussing surveillance as an increasingly central component of modern society. Of course, this is to say nothing about whether it is desirable to put an end to parental surveillance of their children; but it is to say that doing so will certainly not be easy.


boyd, d. (2007). Why Youth ♥ Social Network Sites: The Role of Networked Publics in Teenage Social Life. In D. Buckingham (Ed.), Youth, Identity and Digital Media (pp. 119-142). Cambridge: The MIT Press.

Brown-Smith, N. (1998). Family secrets. Journal of Family Issues, 19(1), 20.

Buckingham, D. (2007). Introducing Identity. The John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation Series on Digital Media and Learning, -, 1-22.

Corsaro, W. A. (1997). The sociology of childhood. Thousand Oaks, Calif.: Pine Forge Press.

Gilligan, C. (1982). In a different voice : psychological theory and women’s development. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press.

Harden, J. (2000). There’s no Place Like Home: The Public/Private Distinction in Children’s Theorizing of Risk and Safety. Childhood, 7(1), 43.

Herring, S. C. (2007). Questioning the generational divide: Technological exoticism and adult constructions of online youth identity. In D. Buckingham (Ed.), Youth, Identity, and Digital Media (pp. 71–92). Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.

Holmes, J. (2009). Myths and Missed Opportunities — Young people’s not so risky use of online communication. Information, Communication & Society, 12(8), 1174 – 1196.

Howe, N., & Strauss, W. (2000). Millennials rising: The next great generation: Vintage.

James, A., Jenks, C., & Prout, A. (1998). Theorizing Childhood: Cambridge: Polity Press.

Jenks, C. (1996). Childhood. London ; New York: Routledge.

Karsten, L. (2005). It all used to be better? Different generations on continuity and change in urban children’s daily use of space. Children’s Geographies, 3(3), 275-290.

Lenhart, A., Ling, R., Campbell, S., & Purcell, K. (2010). Teens and Mobile Phones: Pew Internet & American Life Project.

Livingstone, S. (2008). Taking risky opportunities in youthful content creation: teenagers’ use of social networking sites for intimacy, privacy and self-expression. New Media & Society, 10(3), 393.

Naftali, O. (2010). Caged golden canaries: Childhood, privacy and subjectivity in contemporary urban China. Childhood, 17(3), 297-311.

Pally, M. (1994). Sex & sensibility : reflections on forbidden mirrors and the will to censor Available from

Postman, N. (1982). The disappearance of childhood. New York: Delacorte Press.

Tang, S., & Dong, X. (2006). Parents’ and Children’s Perceptions of Privacy Rights In China. Journal of Family Issues, 27(3), 285-300.

Taylor, E. (2010). I spy with my little eye: the use of CCTV in schools and the impact on privacy. Sociological Review, 58(3), 381-405.

Wyness, M. G. (1994). Keeping tabs on an uncivil society: positive parental control. Sociology, 28(1), 193.

It’s not just the big corporations…

November 5, 2010 by · Leave a Comment
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I came across an interesting article in the New York Times “Home and Garden” section the other day about the use of video surveillance by private individuals to identify neighbors who have been throwing bags of dog poo into their garden or scratching their car or otherwise behaving in a non-neighborly manner.

For me, this article was a timely reminder that data collection is not only being carried out by big fat corporations with an economic interest in our data, but also by normal people going about their normal lives. The article discusses the increased availability of small, affordable CCTV systems that can help people solve the small problems of everyday life – the dog that keeps pooping in the garden, the neighbor who leaves his rubbish by your house.

What is the meaning of all this? I think a few things are worth pointing out. First, practices that were originally initiated by the state and law enforcement authorities are being adopted by citizens: we can all be the policemen of our front garden and our driveway and confront our neighbors with video evidence of their misdemeanors. Or, of course, we can take it to the police (effectively doing their job for them).

Second, as the hardware costs come down, we are likely to see more of this: people want to stop their neighbor throwing his bags of dog poo into their garden more than they worry about the broader social implications of covering the streets with private CCTV cameras.

Third, unlike CCTV footage collected by the police, privately recorded images can be shared with the world, and YouTube would appear to be a popular destination for them. In other words, people are able to publicly shame their neighbors by posting their footage onto the internet. (This is an issue discussed at length by Viktor Mayer-Schonberger in his book Delete, which I mentioned in a previous post.)

I’m writing about this issue not because I want to start a campaign against private individuals’ CCTV networks, but because it looks like an interesting extension of debates over CCTV. More accurately, we might say that the same rationale given for the use of CCTV appears here, but writ small: there is a desire to prevent criminal or anti-social behavior; surveillance technologies are adopted that do not require physical presence (many of these systems enable you to access your cameras over your smartphone); and to the person who might be concerned that he is being filmed as he walks past someone’s house one might say, if you’ve nothing to hide, you’ve nothing to worry about – perhaps the most fallacious of arguments in favor of CCTV.

What’s all this about then?

February 24, 2010 by · Leave a Comment
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At the Interdisciplinary Center for Technology Analysis and Forecasting, where I work, we have recently started a project called PRACTIS. This project, funded by the EU, derived from an opportunity I spotted in a call for proposals to do some interesting research about privacy. I’m not really an expert on privacy, but I am an expert on technology and society. It was clear right away that views about privacy are dependent on context, that is, they vary across time and space. How do they change, though? What is the nature of the relationship between technology and privacy?

This is not to say that technology impacts deterministically on privacy. My view of technology and society is one whereby the two are constantly interacting and shaping one another in ways that we cannot know in advance. So while there are those who see technology as leading us blindly to a world where our privacy is invaded mercilessly and ceaseless, I would raise the possibility of a world in which privacy is no longer considered an important value.

Anyway, my idea here is to present various technologies that might impact on privacy in some way or another and offer a short discussion of them.