Digital Privacy in Education

Our voices can go anywhere. 

GUEST COLUMN | by Jennifer Dalsen and Caroline Hardin

CREDIT UW Dept of Curric and Instruction.gifWe live in a technological world where sharing videos, uploading photos, and sending text messages are part of our daily routine. This strong and constant engagement highlights the transformation society has undergone with digital privacy. Our current generation of students are growing up with a digital presence that begins at birth. The online record of their actions, statements, and decisions, including those posted on their behalf from a young age, have the potential to impact them long-term in ways we don’t yet understand.

Schools should see educating students on digital privacy as a natural part of our technology-rich world. 

Given the consequences that may befall students when their personal information becomes public, and because our current strategies for addressing digital privacy in education are just beginning to take shape, education is faced with an unprecedented challenge. Namely, how can we create programs that encourage a social presence where individuals can access information and participate in the benefits of social media, without compromising their digital privacy?

Digital privacy is a lifelong skill: one that must be observed and practiced often. Parents, family members, neighbors, and students continually share personal information on social media websites. However, the consequences of distributing this information is a discussion that is too often neglected. It is unrealistic for students to never share personal information online when their role models ignore this practice on a daily basis. This is precisely why digital privacy education in schools is so important.

If our society chooses to embrace a culture of broadcasting and surveillance, we must prepare students to understand what this culture entails, and how to best navigate the system in a healthy way. As such, education on digital privacy should build a student’s confidence in their ability to maintain an online presence while still protecting their personal information. Schools should see educating students on digital privacy as a natural part of our technology-rich world. Students should not be afraid to use technology or to connect with others. Rather, students should be empowered to harness new technological devices while understanding and managing information in strategic ways.

Digital privacy is also a community effort. An individual’s actions can only ensure their privacy is protected for so long. Schools must teach their students to respect each other’s privacy. This not only means asking each other for permission to post content or photographs online, but supporting each other in making wise decisions about what to post, and declining to participate in cyberbullying or forwarding posts which violate someone’s privacy.

Finally, digital privacy does not always need to begin with legal jargon or technical frameworks. Sometimes, the best way to learn about digital privacy is for students to collectively reflect and understand the actions surrounding their technology use. An educator can pose one of several open-ended questions for students to consider. These questions include:

  1. What privacy settings do you use on social media?
  2. How can you help protect your friends’ privacy online?
  3. If you see someone post something online which violates someone else’s privacy, what should you do? Is it ok to forward it if it’s really funny?
  4. What do you think about people who post private things in an attempt to get a lot of ‘likes’ or ‘up-votes’?
  5. Have you ever felt embarrassed about something you posted when you were younger?
  6. When joining a site or downloading an app, how do you decide if they are taking good care of your privacy?
  7. Where can you learn more about digital privacy?
  8. Parents sometimes buy things online. How do they know their credit card information is safe?

Despite digital privacy being a lifelong skill that students must continue to practice beyond the school years, it is a new and largely unexplored field in education. By preparing students to think critically about these practices now, and by supporting each other in learning about digital privacy, we can build a collaborative network in the years to come.

Jennifer Dalsen and Caroline Hardin are doctoral students in the department of Curriculum and Instruction at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. Their work advocates for creating inclusive digital media environments for students of every age.

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