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By Anne Collier

There’s a lot of confusion in the air about student data privacy, and some widely quoted words about it from President Obama in his address Tuesday night didn’t help (but I suspect his speechwriters were just looking for a spot to put a high-priority topic into “a simple, dramatic message about economic fairness,” as the New York Times put it:

“No foreign nation, no hacker should be able to shut down our networks, steal our trade secrets or invade the privacy of American families, especially our kids.”

Today’s privacy protection mashup

Where kids’ data is concerned, the problem is not foreign nations or hackers, it’s a blend of elements much closer to the kids and their devices, as close as the kids themselves, their peers, their devices, the providers of the devices and the software on them and the authorities in their lives (at home and school). So the solution is a mashup too. Not even “only” a mashup of laws and privacy settings on devices, from social media companies, in operating systems or in the apps that run on them. It’s not just distributed across those non-human parts of the privacy equation; it’s distributed among the people who are party to a social experience in a digital space.

Because of the social nature of media, privacy is personal and social and fluid. It’s shared by all parties to that social situation. It needs to be optimized not just protected – by all the moving parts – especially by the user at the center of those concentric circles of privacy protection: in this case, your kid.

Protection from the inside out

How can we help our kids do their part, consciously and skillfully, in the optimization of their own privacy? First of all, we can’t continue to see or represent them as passive beneficiaries of others’ actions to protect their privacy. Part of protecting them is respectful treatment of youth as active participants in today’s participatory privacy equation – as is developmentally appropriate, of course.

Certainly privacy law plays a role, if written with an understanding of social media and how kids use it, but laws can’t equip kids or make parents equip kids, especially since parents can’t know every digital move a kid makes. Privacy settings in services and devices can help, but not if the user doesn’t understand their value or know how to calibrate them to his/her own experience, and not as long as peers find workarounds.

Privacy optimized for the personal, social, fluid nature of digital activity works from the inside-out, out from the software in a kid’s head, through the device and its software, and into digitally based social activity. Do you see why literacy – digital, social and media literacy – has never in human history been more needed? Nothing can equip our children to protect themselves, each other, their data and their communities, moment by moment, more effectively than the literacies of the digital age.

Help from smart laws & media providers

The White House certainly understands the collaborative nature of privacy optimization. Before the State of the Union address, it detailed both government and private-sector efforts in the area of student privacy. And in the first presidential appearance at the Federal Trade Commission since Franklin Roosevelt’s, Mr. Obama noted that “75 companies across the country have signed on to a Student Privacy Pledge. And among other things, they’re committing not to sell student information or use educational technologies to engage in targeted advertising to students.” [It was 75 companies as of last week; this week the Wall Street Journal reported Google joined the pledge, saying it hadn’t before because of having already made the commitment to its customers.]
And Obama proposed the Student Digital Privacy Act. “We’re saying that data collected on students in the classroom should only be used for educational purposes – to teach our children, not to market to our children,” the President said. “We want to prevent companies from selling student data to third parties for purposes other than education. We want to prevent any kind of profiling that outs certain students at a disadvantage as they go through school.”

The crucial missing piece

These initiatives will help protect kids, but they’re not enough. There’s a missing piece at the center of the privacy protection puzzle, the digital age literacies, a big piece because it has three parts. The social one seems to challenge policymakers most. As a society, we haven’t yet made the connection between social media and social literacy (or social-emotional skills). We’ve begun to consider its importance to bullying prevention, we understand that positive school climates support learning, we get that social-emotional learning enhances social competency and academic performance, we see cyberbullying as a form of bullying, and – based on the work of the Berkman Center Internet safety task force of 2008 – we understand that cyberbullying is the most common online risk for youth. We’ve begun to put all that together, but educators tell me that, even while schools struggle with bullying in social media, they see social literacy as a luxury, peripheral or just unrelated to “technology” – or just off the radar screen. But just think about it for a moment: How is it not intuitive that social literacy helps things go well in social media?

When are we going to make that connection at home, school, corporate and government levels of policymaking? Social, media and digital literacy are not just integral but crucial to child protection online and offline in this networked world. Not just literacy for children, but digital, media and social literacy in parents, educators, law enforcement, healthcare workers, policymakers and everyone else in children’s lives is crucial too, because we know how much children learn by the example we set. It’s not too late for us adults to start now; recognition of the need alone will get us there much faster. But let’s at least start consciously working toward filling in the all-important missing piece of children’s online privacy protection.

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