Berson, I.R. and M.J. Berson. (2006). Children and their digital dossiers: lessons in privacy rights in the digital age.

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Berson, I.R. and M.J. Berson.  (2006).  Children and their digital dossiers: lessons in privacy rights in the digital age.  International journal of social education.  Muncie, IN:  Ball State University, 135-147.

An Annotation By Jeffrey Ayer

It’s a complex time to protect the privacy of all internet users, including children, say Ilene and Michael Berson in this article, and responsibility of parents, educators, and administrators alike is as great as it has ever been since Samuel D. Warren and Louis D. Brandeis first published “The Right to Privacy” in the Harvard Law Review in 1890.  The dangers today, state the Bersons, are greater because “the public documentation and tracking of young lives through web logs or blogs, e-journals, digital photos, web pages, online profiles. . . have complicated efforts to safeguard young people’s privacy protections in digital spaces” (135).

Significantly, the Bersons cite ways in which companies are gathering information about anybody on the internet through cookies, “online registration forms, web profiles, internet quizzes/surveys, entry forms, electronic postcards, and coupons/promotional activities” (136).  They call these organizations “digital dossiers”, whose sole purpose is to find out anything and everything about consumers, including children, who “are a highly marketed segment of the consumer population“ (136).  And while this information seems harmless, over time (and without an individual’s paying attention to what he/she might be doing online), “[h]uman tendencies to be reductionistic in thinking (i.e. the reductionist fallacy) may rely on erroneous information or give excessive prominence to the ‘worst truths,’” effectively becoming, down the road, “lifelong burdens that drive expectations” (137).  In other words from a very young age, a negative identity can be derived from negative online activities, no matter the age.

Insert the adults here.  Because children and adolescents are often “vulnerable to risky behavior, including poor decision-making” and “freely revealing private information,” there is an ever-increasing need for “adults [to] serve critical protective roles” (137).  In particular, students 13 and older are at most risk because current federal protection (the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act of 1998) “restricts web site operators from collecting and disseminating information pertaining to patrons under the age of 13” (139).  The Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA) is additional legislation “that requires commercial web site operators to acquire parental consent before personal information is collected from children under the age of 13” and that “teachers can act on behalf of parents in the school setting so that students can engage in online activities that the teacher feels have an educational benefit” (140-141).  Along with these rules, school districts must provide acceptable use policies and also “safeguard against violation of students’ privacy through posting of names and photos on school web sites” (141).

The Bersons also highlight the inherent importance of digital literacy, which they define as this:

A compilation of legal precedent, voluntary policies, and ethical conduct.  It represents the ability to access digital forms of information, critically evaluate its quality and utility, analyze information for connections to and expansions of knowledge, and use digital tools to produce original works. It emphasizes the capacity to fully participate as a responsible member of a technologically engaged society and refers to the skills that people need to understand and constructively navigate the digital media that surrounds them (142).

To prepare, the Bersons contend that students need access so that they can practice these increasingly important skills in a safe learning environment that schools can provide.  In other words, “children need instruction on the application of skills for critical analysis and ethical decision making” (142).

The Bersons clearly see the power of digital literacy and the vast possibilities that lay ahead.  “Young people enjoy the power of sharing ideas and communicating with others, and cyberspace offers a globally-connected community in which students are challenged to apply their social competence and ethical decision-making skills within a worldwide forum.  To this end we are obligated to educate children on critical protection and security in a digital age as well as prepare them for cybercitizenship with guidelines for acceptable online behavior” (143).  So despite the potential harms, looking past them, the Bensons recognize with great optimism that “preventative intervention may preserve the extraordinary opportunities available online and offer a medium for applied practice in evaluating the credibility of information, understanding sources, and appreciating the diversity of perspectives and people in a global community” (144).  The internet can be a cyberfeast, but it must be served with a side of caution, according to Berson and Berson.

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