Thank You for Your Honesty
A photo posted by ReShonda Tate Billingly to her daughter’s Facebook page.
There’s a lot of argument over age restrictions on Facebook, Google accounts, and on the internet in general. Most of the conversation seems to center around who has the right to control their information, and whether or not the age restrictions should be a parent’s choice, the child’s choice, the government’s choice or the company’s choice. But there’s little, if any, discussion on why a child’s privacy is important to their development and understanding of the world.
Much of the texts discussing child psychology is dedicated to understanding their needs and how they develop their morality. While Freud and Erickson developed moral theories based on adults that psychologists applied to children, the development of a true childhood unknown before industrialization and the resulting universal education movement of 1930s has ultimately led to separate theories of development for children. Piaget’s theory of cognitive development, which broke down development into stages that we pass through, was expanded into Kohlberg’s theory of moral development, which discusses the ways in which morality changes alongside a child’s understanding of the world. Gilligan, in turn, simplified Kohlberg’s stages and tried to create a more applicable understanding that encompasses the differences in development of boys and girls. The highest level of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs is Self-Actualization, the ability to recognize one’s own psychological needs and address them at a higher level. Ultimately, when it comes to children, society obsesses about their safety and well-being, psychologically as well as physically.
The advent of social media and the growing trend of a digital society should have thrown psychology for a loop, and yet the same theories pervade child psychology as before, with little new thought entering the mainstream. While it’s true that older theories are still applicable and useful, there’s a great need for us to adjust our thinking to deal with these new trends and examine how social policy and individual use of media should change the way we treat and work with children.
When George Orwell’s 1984 was published in 1949, technology was only just beginning to hint at the strange and ubiquitous information age we’re living in now. The idea of a complete lack of privacy outside of a prison-like setting was both scary and seemingly unrealistic. Yet today, we are recorded, surveilled, and data-mined at nearly every turn, some of it very obvious (cameras in the ATMs) and other innocuous and distant (satellite mapping of your general area). Getting caught in these ways in unavoidable, but the information we choose to put out there is, for the most part, wholly under our control.
Many theories deal with the development of self. Piaget and Kohlberg talk about children developing a sense of reversibility: the idea that something can be changed and then returned to its original state. Yet when it comes to the internet, the struggle is with the development of a sense of permanence. Through the 90s, children’s media often referenced the idea of a permanent record. Always, this reference came with a foreboding sense of inescapability, and yet the physical file was restricted in who could see it and was lorded over by adults. The internet, however, has provided us with decentralized permanent record, one which is ineluctable, intangible, indelible, and whose control is ethereal. The internet has proven again and again that attempts to censor something once posted is nigh impossible, and often results in the Striesand effect.
These are not theories easily grasped by children.
We live in an age where privacy is quickly decaying due to connectivity. The ubiquity of technology is making it more difficult to heavily police our children’s activities and connections to the outside world. Parallel arguments I used to hear for parents allowing underage drinking under their watchful gaze are, more and more, being used to explain why middle schoolers have iPhones and portable internet devices. Even for generations moderately comfortable with technology, the complexity and intractable nature of computers and the internet render what little control we do exert nearly useless. Parents seem to put their trust more often into services and controls rather than into their parenting ability or their children’s personal responsibility.
This last part poses myriad problems, chief among them is the development of honesty.
Untruths can be broken into two groups: fantasy, which are told for entertainment, a desire for them to be true, or out of guesswork; and what I’ll refer to as true lies, which are told to obfuscate or replace the truth on the more malicious end or simply to test the boundaries and abilities of the people around them. The difference between the two is a question of intent. While most literature on the moral development of children is concerned with cultivating honesty, our issues with the internet should make us concerned with the ability to get away with lies.
I’ve postulated on multiple occasions that it’s important the children can successfully lie. The idea of radical honesty, while one which is fascinating to explore and one which can create a great deal of self-examination and enlightenment in adults, is not one which should be foisted on a child. As adults, we should have already developed a sense of morals and ethics that make us understand what a mistake is, how we can avoid many of the greater mistakes, and how we can grow and move beyond our mistakes. Our children need the leeway to make mistakes and grow past them in order to become functional adults, and the idea of permanent record available publicly is antithetical to this process.
For years, the US government has had a policy of sealing juvenile records, giving children a fresh start at 18. There’s no such policy on the internet, nor is there any way to enforce one. Every act, no matter how stupid or regrettable, has a permanence that’s difficult to see under the flood of information available. A few clicks and a little digging can turn up even the smallest infraction, and the biggest safety net isn’t anonymity, as that’s a fight essentially already lost for us and eschewed by our egocentric kids as unnecessary, but rather a generic name.
In the last six months, two different examples of public shaming by parents have made the rounds on the internet. These are directly in response to children abusing social media and threatening their own well-being in a public and permanent fashion. In both cases, the child’s violation generally showed a lack of understanding of public versus private and of the permanence of the internet. Cyberbullying is a separate but related issue, and generally a result of parents not watching.
Whether these reactionary tactics are our best or only methodology for creating responsible young adults in regards to technology is unclear; and Shakespeare’s Romeo & Juliet can be seen as metaphorically prophetic in its criticism of hardline avoidant parenting tactics. All of this culminates in the need for new theories and ideas on how to educate our children and help them develop not only a sense of morality, but one in a world where every action has become infinitely more difficult to bury in search of that invaluable clean slate.