By Melanie Davis
In the October 5, 2014 New York Times article, We Want Privacy but Can't Stop Sharing, Kate Murphy writes, "The problem is that if you reveal everything about yourself or it's discoverable with a Google search, you may be diminished in your capacity for intimacy" because relationships develop through gradual and mutual self-disclosure of increasingly private and sensitive personal information.
Murphy notes that the data mining of social media by advertisers has led many adult users to become more circumspect about how much they share online. She posits that the new trend toward more privacy helps our social relationships.
But how about children whose parents share moments as personal as an ultrasound image of a fetus captioned "We're having a boy!" or "We're having a girl!" Or a photo of a toddler using a potty seat? Then there are the bad haircuts, first menstrual periods, questionable clothing choices, first dates, and more. For many parents, the urge to share seems to have usurped any concern over their children's right to control which stories, and when, to share with friends and future romantic partners.
Do Children Have a Right to Privacy?
Many people cheered the blogger who wrote about teaching her daughter that masturbation is a private, rather than public, activity. I wasn't cheering; in fact, I was angry. Yes, parents should teach their children that masturbation is a healthy, normal feel-good activity. And yes, parents need to teach children about social boundaries related to sexual activity. But this child's behavior, which her mother insisted should remain private, has now been made public. By whom? Her mother!
Masturbation is a harmless, healthy sexual activity, and the little girl's behavior was completely typical. But let's mentally fast-forward. In adolescence, when even the most confident, happy young person can be crushed by peer ridicule, how might she feel if someone unearths that old blog post about her young fascination with masturbation? Will she feel that her inherent worth and dignity were respected by the person who published that blog post?
The blogger could have shared her sex ed. advice (which was quite good) without exposing her child's private behavior. She, like other parents who over-share online, failed to respect and protect her daughter's privacy.
The Importance of Sexual Privacy Rights
Sexuality encompasses core aspects of our being. As such, it presents endless fodder for anecdotes and photos that were once preserved in baby books and are now shared and stored via social media.
Carefully assess the information you share about your children. If they are old enough to have a reasoned opinion, ask for permission to post about them. If they are younger, err on the side of privacy. Your children are likely to thank you for it later in life. When they are ready to begin slowly sharing personal information with potential relationship partners, they will be grateful you did not beat them to it.
As Murphy notes in her article, "...information about yourself is like currency. The amount you spend on a person signifies how much your value the relationship. And that person compensates you in kind. That's why it feels like theft when someone tells your secrets or data miners piece together your personal history."
Protecting children’s sexual rights to privacy is an opportunity for parents to practice justice, equity and compassion in human relations. Children deserve the right to determine which stories they want to share, in their own time.
- Assess the stories or images you share online about your children. Do the items you post show respect for their inherent worth and dignity? When sharing, are you doing so with compassion for any feelings they may have about the disclosures in the future?
- Remember that sexual health involves relationships, decisions, and experiences across many aspects of our lives. Learn about the breadth of sexuality with the Circles of Sexuality Model used in the Our Whole Lives Sexuality Education curricula.
- Improve parent-child communication about sexuality with these two books: Debrah Roffman’s Talk to Me First: Everything You Need to Know to Become Your Kids’ ‘Go-To’ Person about Sex (2012, Da Capo Press) and Al Vernacchio’s For Goodness Sex: Changing the Way We Talk to Teens about Sexuality, Values, and Health (2014, Harper Wave).
- Prepare yourself to help children share information safely online. Read "Seven Media-Savvy Skills All Parents Need."
Melanie Davis is the Our Whole Lives Program Associate in the Faith Development Office of the Unitarian Universalist Association.