The NSA Spying Scandal is a Wake-Up Call — American Teens’ Privacy is at Severe Risk

Amidst the recent revelation that the National Security Administration is using Big Data to monitor our every move and evaluate our behavior came an even more sobering realization: Tech giants have been routinely collecting, storing, mining, and sharing this data for years. The consequences to kids and teens are especially troubling.

An Allstate/National Journal Heartland Monitor Poll released June 13, 2013 found that nine out of ten Americans believe they have less privacy than previous generations when it comes to their personal information, and 93 percent believe that the next generation will have even less. But kids are waking up about privacy. In a recent Washington Post-Pew Research poll, 45 percent of young people said they did not want the federal government monitoring their online lives. Similarly, last year Common Sense Media published a research study that revealed some kids yearn for the days before sharing everything on social media was commonplace, and that digital natives actually prefer face-to-face over Facebook. Of course, despite this, upwards of 85 percent of teens use social media, smart phones, and the Internet every day. The only glimmer of hope is that our children realize there’s a cost to having tech giants and intelligence agents compile a detailed biographic profile of them as they are evolving into the people that they aspire to be. 

The explosive growth of digital devices, smart phones, and social media is literally transforming our kids’ lives, in school and at home, with teachers, parents, friends and even strangers. Research tells us that even the youngest of our children are migrating online, using tablets and smart phones, downloading appsThese new high-tech tools bring a wonderful potential for learning, communicating, and creating – as well as the potential for our children to leave a huge digital footprint in their wake.

Consider this: by the time they’re two years old, more than 90 percent of all American children have an online history. At five, more than 50 percent regularly interact with a computer or tablet device; and by 7 or 8, many kids have cell phones and regularly play video games. Today’s middle schoolers spend more time with media than with their parents or teachers; teenagers text an average of 3,000 times a month. Every little bit of data contained in the touch of a keystroke or the press of a Facebook “Like” button contributes to an opus of that child’s life – often revealing details and drawing conclusions about them that could have ramifications for years to come.

Recent updates to the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Rule enhance protection for personal information that websites and online services collect from children under 13, yet aren't a complete answer and do not apply to teens. We urgently need a public conversation in our country among key stakeholders – parents, educators, technology innovators, policymakers and young people themselves. The dialogue must focus on the ways in which some technology virtually forces our kids to forfeit their privacy before they fully understand what privacy is and why it’s important to all of us, as well as how technology can empower kids to find their voice, their purpose and contribute to solving global problems.

As a society, we have no choice but to engage with this new reality and work to ensure it impacts our kids in healthy, responsible ways. Kids deserve to write their own stories, star in their own movies and discover their own dreams; they deserve at least a modicum of privacy as they grow and discover their true selves, regardless of what they text or tweet, or where they go on the Internet. But for these positive outcomes to occur, we must confront the privacy challenges endemic in our 24/7 digital world. We need legislation, educational efforts and norms that reflect 21st century realities to maximize the opportunities and ameliorate the risks for our kids. Only then will we be able to give our kids the safe, healthy childhood and adolescence they deserve.

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Jim Steyer

James Steyer is the CEO and Founder of Common Sense Media, a national Children's policy expert, and a media entrepreneur. Prior to founding Common Sense, Jim was Chairman and CEO of JP Kids, a respected family media company. Jim teaches popular courses on civil rights, civil liberties, and children's issues at Stanford University, and is a founding board member of the Next Generation, a nonpartisan organization supporting programs and policies that benefit the next generation of young Americans.

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