Wednesday, October 5, 2011

How To Incite a 7th Grade Uprising

Photo: Wesley Fryer

Try this… stand in front of a roomful of 12- and 13-year olds and deliver the following news: “Kids, a team of researchers will be coming to your school to monitor your every move. These observers will record where you go (including the restroom, lunch area, playground, etc.), how long you spend there, whom you talk to, and what you do. The results of this research will help your school administrator customize the school to better meet your needs.” As you deliver this news, don’t forget to watch their expressions transform from uninterested to curious to disbelieving and, finally, to outrage!

Okay, by now you see where this is going. There’s no research company. But this lesson on “Privacy” from Common Sense Media’s free online digital media curriculum did get the attention of this class. So when they learned that this infringement on their privacy wasn’t actually going to happen at their school, but was happening every day in a place where they spend more time than in school -- cyberspace -- well, let’s just say they weren’t happy.  In fact, several students summed up their displeasure as follows, “That’s creepy!

It is creepy. In a front page story from last Sunday’s L.A. Times (Watching a Screen? It Watches You Too) Kevin Bankston, from the Electronic Frontier Foundation says, “[e]ssentially , each of us is being tailed”. Funny thing is, most of us, like these 7th graders, really don’t think too much about it. Maybe that’s because the upside of all this surveillance can be rather nice- data collection of our behavior patterns allows companies to target us with customized information, like ads for shoes we like or cars we might be likely to drive. This gathering of our personal data happens so invisibly we scarcely notice it. However, when we stop to scrutinize how it happens and then consider just how much information is mined from our simplest online activities you have to admit it is, well, creepy.

Fortunately for this class of 7th graders (who are hopefully home at this very moment examining their Whyville privacy policies), they get to consider all this in class. Our school, Journey School in Aliso Viejo, CA, has made the bold move of incorporating Common Sense Media’s curriculum into all of its middle school classes. Why does this matter? Because in a few years these students will be able to vote. Maybe they’ll actually pay attention to (and understand) all the privacy-related legislation that continually fails to become law because powerful companies like FaceBook and Google don’t want to relinquish access to our data.  Or maybe they’ll decide they like their information perfectly designed to meet their needs. Either way, at least they’ll be informed citizens of their digital world.