by Carolyn Caywood
At the American Library Association’s 2006 annual conference, ALA Council passed a resolution to work “toward a national conversation about privacy as an American value.” At that time, there was no discussion guide to structure a conversation on privacy available from the national organizations that develop frameworks for dialogue. ALA’s Intellectual Freedom Round Table (IFRT) and the Fostering Civic Engagement Member Initiative Group (MIG) undertook to create one.
Interested volunteers from IFRT and the MIG convened groups in their library or community to get a wide range of public opinion on the topic of privacy. Our experience was universally rewarding – people were so appreciative of being asked and listened to, and they commended the librarians for being interested in their concerns.
We asked neutral, open questions to get people talking. For example, “What is important to you personally about privacy?” We noted both their concerns, and the language and anecdotes they used to explain those concerns, in order to make our community discussion guide resonate with the public. The goal was not data for statistics, but rather to put the issue of privacy into words and ideas that are meaningful to the public. The overriding theme we heard was, who can we trust? You will find the guide we developed, and related materials for community conversations, at https://chooseprivacyweek.org/for-libraries/civic-engagement-materials/.
One of the groups we particularly wanted to hear from was teenagers. It seemed that every adult had an opinion about teens and privacy, mostly that teens didn’t care about it. What we learned was very different. The teens we listened to cared deeply about their privacy, but their ideas of what needed to be private weren’t always the same as adults’. And, like adults, their ideas about how to protect their privacy weren’t always successful. Here are some of the concerns we heard from middle and high school groups.
They wanted “the right to go home and shut the door, to be by yourself and think for yourself.” They worried about rumors, backstabbing, gossip, and “people who get in your business and then talk behind your back.” “I hate having to accept unwanted touching so I can fit in.” “I don’t want to be ridiculed for my imaginings.”
“My parents walk in my room. They go through my room and listen on the phone. Parents say they trust us but they don’t.” Students complained that parents wanted to friend them to watch them online, but didn’t understand the social media culture. “It’s embarrassing and leaves us feeling that there is no private place for us to talk.” Parents can joke about serious stuff, but when teens make the same kinds of jokes, especially in social media, parents take it too seriously and overreact. For example, “some kid says he’s hungover meaning tired from studying and next thing you know out comes the drug test kit.” They wanted parents to communicate and not resort to snooping.
They feared “the police searching me or my stuff just because they feel like it, and try to scare me.” “I lost my backpack so the principal looked in it.” All the students felt that libraries had an obligation to protect their information for them. They felt that allowing information about them to be given out to the FBI would be illegal. “The government shouldn’t be snooping around my life looking for stuff I’m not even thinking about doing.” They didn’t trust the security cameras in the school hallways to show the truth – they felt that they could be set-up for something they didn’t do. They were well aware that that data about a person could be skewed or wrong.
They talked about a politician who had recently embarrassed himself and segued to information they didn’t want an employer to see. They thought politicians should have more right to privacy. “As a future journalism major and journalist, I would never give up or reveal my source.” They said they disliked tabloids and celebrity shows that over-shared. Interestingly, email spam and phone solicitations were viewed as invasions of privacy.
They were actively trying to protect their privacy. Health issues, grades, “how I spend my free time,” sexual orientation and gender identity were named as private matters. They protected their Social Security number. On the other hand, the teens were unconcerned about sharing photos, their birthday, or their phone number. Some students created fake identities on social media or used abandoned email addresses on sites that required registration, especially if they had “an ethnic name.” They weighed the trade-offs between having a private profile or having lots of friends. They acknowledged that sometimes they compromised their privacy for convenience. They wondered how to control access to their text messages.
From the teens and the other groups we listened to, we learned that what feels private varies from person to person. People are not always aware of what personal information they need to protect. While they have many strategies to protect themselves, those aren’t necessarily effective, and there is a pervasive feeling of being vulnerable, but not knowing where to turn.
This is an opportunity for librarians to teach students how to protect their privacy online. Students generally trust librarians to be role models for respecting privacy and will respond to the expectation that they need to extend that respect to others. The discussion guide we created can be used to raise students’ awareness of the political and social issues around privacy. And teens will truly value the experience of being listened to with respect.
Carolyn Caywood retired from the Virginia Beach Public Library in 2011. She wrote a monthly column on library services to teenagers for School Library Journal from 1990 through 1998 and in 2006, she was added to the Freedom to Read Foundation‘s Roll of Honor. She serves on the Advisory Committee of the American Library Association Center for Civic Life.