The 21%: Parents, youth and “surveillance”

The recent survey “Teens, Privacy and Social Media” is an interesting survey for many reasons. Here’s one more. Parents were asked if they had ever “surveilled” their children without their knowledge.  21% answered yes;  a result, which enticed a heavy debate in Danish media about parents control of their children’s online life via e.g. their Facebook profiles (see some of the debates here/links at the bottom).

”Social media open  a unique window through which parents can see their children’s everyday lives in the way that children see it themselves. The parents peep hole into young people’s lives raise the question about how much control children should be exposed to”  (translated from Danish, Berlingske article )

It’s an interesting result, but actually not for the reasons referenced in this media debate. Yes, the most obvious thing would be to look at it as a symptom of a disquieting move towards increased parental control of young people’s  social space and the effects this might have on their rights (such as their right to privacy and freedom of expression without interference!). Or on the opposite side of this argument it might even be seen as a good sign of parents being in control and protecting their children against unprecedented harm (this was actually one angle in the Danish debate).

However, I actually see the 21% percent as an interesting result in a “non-alarming” manner.  The parents were asked using the negatively coded word “surveillance”. The fact that they acknowledge that they have “surveilled” their children could therefore be seen as a sign of an emerging awareness about the  social architecture of a complex digital social  space.

The spaces we are adults and children in today have different “walls” than the ones our parents were policing when we were children. Increasingly parents have access to young people’s social spaces. 79% of the teens in the survey say that they are friends with one or two of their parents on a social network. These digital friendships give parents a direct view of their children’s social life; uncensored  and unfiltered.

In general the digital spaces that we interact in are social architectures where contexts and roles are infinitely interrelated and where borders er defined by social rules and etiquette. And it’s a complex space to navigate in if you are not aware of the new types of borders and principles evolving these days. For example principles concerning the parent – child relation, which basically boils down to a balancing between protection, education and young people’s right to grow into being independently. It’s not an “either or” question – whether you have access to your child’s Facebook profile  or not.  But a question of how you administer and respond to this access.

All parents that are friends with their children on social media network have of course looked at their children’s profiles at some point. But the fact that they answer that they have done this in a “surveilling” manner could be seen as a sign of an emerging awareness about some evolving social rules and etiquette. Their “ticking off” the answer to the question with this exact wording might indicate that they are actually aware that some  social limits and borders have been transgressed. I wonder what they would have answered three years ago…

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