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We are supposed to be the generation that gave up our privacy, and Facebook is supposed to be the altar we sacrificed it on.
Maybe we did, maybe we didn’t. That’s a debate for another time. One patently absurd idea is that Facebook, or smartphones, or any other piece of technology has in some way changed the way we are. People don’t change. At best, technology allows us to be more of what we were in the first place. (Also, I lied. I told you this article would be about Facebook. I thought it would too, but I promise the shift is at least thematically appropriate).The rise of Facebook, smartphones, and constant connection has lead to the re-opening of some “gray areas” that are not, in fact, any grayer now simply because of some newfangled gizmo.
Which leads me to what accidentally became my main beef in this article.
About twice a month, I come across a news story in which a principal or teacher has seized a phone from a student and looked through it. Smartphones function as address book, scheduler, photo album and diary. They are as personal a thing as anyone is likely to possess. Their contents, unless it is demonstrably harmful and unless its revelation has been compelled by due legal process, is not the business of an educator, or anyone in a position of authority, to look through.
I don’t think we would condone a principal who spent their time seizing and reading student diaries. Imagine that call.
“Yes, Mr. Smith, I’ve been reviewing your daughter’s diary, and it appears she’s been doing some very inappropriate things in the chem lab with a Bobby Shaefer, and there are some photos…What’s that? Are you asking how the fuck I got a hold of your daughter’s diary? Well, I took it from her room this morning…Sorry sir, I don’t think what you just asked me to do to myself is anatomically possible…”
What Principle Creeply there was referring to is of course “sexting” (I hate that term as much as the media seems to love it. We are supposed to be adults here, and yet you see news anchors fairly giggling to themselves over a pun that a 5th grader would hear once, scoff at, and tell you to grow up.)
In more than a few cases, mostly in the US, educators have found nude photos in teenager’s phones. Generally these phones belong to two parties, the teens themselves or their boyfriends/girlfriends. Are there cases where the photos have been shared widely, either by accident or on purpose? Yes. I am not saying that the decision to do these things is wise, or advisable. Yet in some of these cases, the kids have been exposed to a very curious set of punishments.
The most idiotic has been the rush to charge these teens with production and distribution of child pornography. It is hardly worth the ink to point out why this is absurd. Child pornography laws are in place to protect children from adults who would prey on them, not to charge the children themselves. Following that logic, every time you so much as looked down in the shower when you were in high school, you were viewing child porn. Pervert!
It gets worse. The person taking the phone, who sees the photos, has violated that teen’s right to privacy, their right to have a space that is their own, and their sovereignty over their own body. By the time one of those cases makes it to court, how many officials have to see the evidence? I don’t care how loudly the courts claim that control of this material is tight, that the photos are censored etc. , SOMEONE, even if it is just the first person to search the phone, has seen something they should not have, were not meant to, and had no right, to see.
None of the actions I have discussed above would have been widely accepted in a pre-internet world. Imagine an educator thumbing through a child’s diary, tapping their home phone or secretly taping conversations. Feel a little chill? That vague, unsettling feeling that something in that is wrong?
I know I do. And yet we persist in pretending that something has really changed because of the internet, because of smartphones. Many things have changed, but the moral universe has not. Right and wrong do not change according the whims of human invention. This is a fallacy, one whose danger should have been obviously demonstrated, but has not. It is wrong to spy on a child. Wrong to punish them for their thoughts, wrong to sneak into their private places without reason or permission. This has not changed simply because access to those places is easier now.
Time check: Despite starting in advance, I still finished the column at 4 a.m. ….in fact, slightly after. I may be regressing..