So, what has the digital age that we now live in done to our privacy? We publicly announce information about ourselves, personal information that previously would have been guarded. We find with steadily increasing regularity that our personal data is turning up in publicly accessible forums. A quick search of just my name on the internet turns up, among other things, my current address and cell phone number, my parents’ names and address, my wife’s name, and previous addresses I have lived at. Incidents of online accounts being hacked are commonplace. Whether we want it or not, our personal lives now have digital shadows that will follow us wherever we go. It is not so much a question of what we choose to post anymore, because chances are, our information has already been posted.
Of course, there are conveniences that come with the loss of privacy: instant communication with friends and relatives around the globe, online banking and shopping that provide immediate access to resources, a wealth of information that can be called up at a moment’s notice for free. But, there are just as many negatives that accompany the positives: we spend more time in our relationships digitally than we do in person, we buy more than we need because it is so readily available and marketed with targeted advertising, much of the information available through the web is unreliable and insufficiently verified through accurate research and scholarship.
The majority of students in high school today cannot imagine a world where digital access is not instantly at their fingertips. They have grown up with the ability to instantaneously retrieve any answer with a Google search. They have been able to listen to or watch what they want, when they want, through apps like iTunes, YouTube, and Netflix. They are in contact with friends and family around the clock through instant messaging and through their ever adapting and evolving social media feeds. They can easily access their assignments and grades in school using Google Classroom or PowerSchool or Engrade, and if that fails, they can simply message their teacher. This doesn’t even begin to cover the list of games, apps, and services that teens access on a daily basis.
Today’s adolescents live their day to day lives constantly connected to their online lives, a digital version of themselves. While there are arguably benefits to uploading and downloading information to and from the cloud, there are significant drawbacks as well. With adolescents sharing more and more of themselves in these online accounts, they have less and less private moments. Rather than spend time in silent reflection, most students drown out the internal monologue with a social media feed. Instead of putting effort into solving a problem for oneself, it has become much easier--and more common--to simply look up solutions and go with the one that has the most thumbs next to it, the most crowd support. Has the sense of what privacy means fundamentally changed for this generation?
At our core, humans are social animals: we have evolved to exist in societies that provide strength and security. At the same time, we have also evolved to be sentient and philosophical beings, capable of deep thought independent of others. This duality, being connected and separate, is something that sets us apart from other animals. As technology evolves, we become less and less independent. The reliance on technology that we see in today’s adolescents spans all aspects of their thinking. They have, in many ways, given up the separation that is inherent in human existence to become part of an ever-expanding connected organism. But what happens to the individual with this shift? By giving up the private internal thoughts through constant access to and reliance upon the thoughts of others, by turning away from the privacy of personal experience through constant sharing on social media, are today’s teenagers redefining what it means to be an individual?
The teenage years are a time for rebellion and self-discovery. Adolescents are trying to define who they are but are simultaneously trying to feel a sense of belonging. Music, fashion, and other trends are outward aspects of self that teens gravitate towards to show their belonging to a certain group or clique; this is nothing new. But in recent years, the hive mentality that defines what it means to belong has become more pervasive through the ubiquity of these trends in social media and other digital access. More and more, what it means to express oneself as a teenager means following trends. Self-expression has become a commercial enterprise, one that teens are not even aware that they are buying into. Digital technologies such as social media and even streaming media have been able to inundate the teenage mind with advertisements because teens spend more and more time on their feeds. Targeted advertisements blend into the stream of images that their friends have posted, and, just as frequently, their friends are posting about the products that are being advertised.
To a great extent, what the internet has done is bring us all closer together. We can communicate with people around the globe in real time. We have instant access to information via websites like Wikipedia, a crowdsourced digital encyclopedia that provides free information on just about any topic you can imagine. We have streaming news from limitless sources. This is viewed by most as a great positive contribution to society. We now have access to information that makes understanding those who are different much easier. But this is not always what happens. Our 24-hour access to information through our phones and computers has magnified the hive mentalities that have always existed. With the internet as a place where anyone can publish their thoughts, it gives credence to ideas that would otherwise not take root. People tend towards the information they already believe and agree with. Rather that opening the door to new ideas and providing understanding of those with different backgrounds, philosophies, and beliefs, the information most people encounter on the internet serves to distance groups of people from one another.
In his book On the End of Privacy, Richard E. Miller delves deep into the circumstances surrounding the 2010 suicide of Tyler Clementi. Before his final act, Clementi posted a final status update, “jumping off the gw bridge sorry.” As Miller goes on to explain, “In the paper-based world, suicide notes are, almost exclusively, private affairs. But what to make of a suicide note posted, in real time, to the Internet?” (4) This is not the only recorded instance of a publicly announced suicide, a phenomenon becoming more frequent in today’s digital landscape. When young people communicate, it is most frequently through digital means, and it is most frequently through public channels. What’s more, as Miller continued digging into the story behind Tyler Clementi’s suicide, he discovered that social media had played a much bigger role in the suicide than just Tyler’s posting his final message. Clementi’s college roommate had secretly filmed and shared via a live web-feed a private homosexual encounter between Tyler and another student at the college. According to Miller’s detailed research into the events, this public broadcast of a private event led directly to Tyler’s taking his own life. The roommate, Dharun Ravi, received a sentence of 30 days in prison and three years probation. (5)
So do the positives of our digital lives outweigh the negatives? This unit asks students to analyze the evidence on both sides of this question and decide for themselves. The answer should not be a simple one; rather, students will have to consider the complicated and often conflicting relationship between our desires for both privacy and convenience.