In the last year or two many writers and researchers have been trying to correct the common perception that young people do not care about privacy. While the public may finally be getting the message that teenagers do value their privacy – as they define it – the idea that younger children have any personal information worth protecting is still a new one. Certainly, most people would probably be surprised to learn how early children are starting to surf the Net: the average age at which children began to use the Internet dropped from age 10 in 2002 to age four in 2009 (Findahl, Olle, Preschoolers and the Internet, Presented at the EU-kids online conference, London, June 11, 2009); and, thanks to the iPhone and iPad, that number has probably dropped even lower.
The YouTube video “Ultimate Dog Tease” has jumped from 15 million to 37 million views since the beginning of May 2011. The “JK Wedding Entrance Dance” has hit 67 million views since it was launched on YouTube. These two videos have more followers than some TV shows. They’re fun, they’re silly and, like YouTube as a medium, they are worth celebrating.
One of the most famous images of online life is the New Yorker cartoon captioned “On the Internet, nobody knows you’re a dog.” The cartoon, published in 1993, was hugely influential in fixing an image in the public imagination of the Internet as a place where anonymity reigned. It did not take long for that humorous view of anonymity to take on a darker cast, as parents began to fear that Internet predators would use this invisibility to lure their children in the guise of twelve-year-old girls. It’s instructive, though, to realize just how long ago this cartoon was published, and how much the Internet has changed since then.
One of the most unusual things about Internet-based businesses is that few of them try very hard to make money. Of course, with a very few exceptions (such as Wikipedia) making money is certainly in the business plan, or there wouldn’t be all that venture capital floating around, but in general the approach has been to come up with a good product or service first, and only look for ways to make it profitable after it’s acquired a steady clientele. Hugely important and successful ventures like Google, YouTube and Facebook all started out operating at a significant loss. This pattern continues today: it’s already hard to imagine the Internet without Twitter, but so far that service isn’t earning its makers much money (though you can be sure they’re looking for ways to do that.)
Someone encountering the Internet for the first time might be forgiven for assuming it was created specifically for teenagers. Indeed, the Internet could reasonably be said to have been aging backwards since its birth – the domain first of scientists and the military, then of university students in the 1990s and now children and teenagers.
It’s been widely said that attention is the currency of the 21st Century. In an age where media occupy an increasingly central role in our lives, the need to have that media focused on you becomes intense. For no-one is this more true than for children and teens, who now expect to be connected twenty-four hours a day and for whom the Internet and cell phones are essential parts of their social lives. An interesting Facebook page, amusing Tweets, outrageous YouTube videos, even shocking photos sent by cell phone – most of us are aware of the ways that young people seek their peers’ attention. In today’s media environment, is it still possible to teach young people the value of privacy? What, indeed, does the idea of privacy even mean to today’s children and teens?
With the tremendous success and spread of social networking sites like Facebook and MySpace, along with home-broadcasting sites such as YouTube and Flickr, many people have become concerned about what effect they will have on our attitudes towards privacy. Now a new question has arisen: whether Facebook postings violate the Youth Criminal Justice Act if they identify suspects or victims covered under the act.
With all the recent attention focused on stories of teenagers charged with distributing child pornography for taking sexually suggestive pictures of themselves, jobs lost due to Facebook and MySpace entries, and libel suits over blog posts, people are justifiably concerned about the permanence of material posted to the Internet. Many a teacher or parent has had to carefully explain to children or teens that whatever they post online might be seen by people other than the intended audience, and might be out there for a very long time.