Parents should not stalk their children online, warns leading US cyber safety expert Dr Danah Boyd.
Described by The New York Times last month as ''a rock star emissary from the online and offline world of teenagers'', the 34-year-old New York University professor and Harvard researcher advises governments, corporations and organisations worldwide on teen communication. She is leading Microsoft's investigation of child trafficking online, and Lady Gaga funds her bullying research through the Born This Way Foundation.
But Dr Boyd warns that constant parental online surveillance not only abuses teens' privacy but also obliges them to forge coded forms of communication online, using in-jokes, shared references and even song lyrics to evade parental scrutiny.
''The kind of public life we see online has never existed before,'' Dr Boyd told Fairfax Media ahead of a lecture on teens' online privacy at Australia's RMIT. ''But it's a myth that teens don't care about privacy. It's really impressive what teens do to find new ways to be private in public.''
When so many cyber studies warn parents of the dangers of the internet, Dr Boyd has become the voice in favour of letting children log on and learn for themselves.
''Children's ability to roam has been destroyed,'' she says. By demonising the internet, we shut down the only social space they have left. ''Being a successful adult in society requires social skills. And we desperately need to give youth space to learn them,'' she said.
As the Victorian Privacy Commissioner polls Victorian teens about ''sexting'' - sending revealing photos as texts - Dr Boyd supports calls for the laws classifying these photos as child pornography to be scrapped. She will be comparing US and Australian sexting laws in a study with University of New South Wales professor Kate Crawford.
''I have nothing against taking a legal stance against harassing and blackmail, but why prosecute the kids who are taking the pictures?''
She has described the pressure on parents to supervise their children's internet habits as ''an arms race'' between surveillance technology and privacy software to cloak activities.
''As kids work to be invisible to people who hold direct power over them (parents, teachers, etc), they happily expose themselves to audiences of peers,'' Dr Boyd writes on her blog. ''And they expose themselves to corporations. They know that the company can see everything they send through their servers/service, but who cares? Until these companies show clear allegiance with their parents, they're happy to assume that the companies are on their side and can do them no harm.''
Parents who want to help their children navigate an online social minefield need to educate and communicate, not berate, restrict or panic, Dr Boyd said. ''The way forward is to have open conversations, to really have a dialogue of trust ... if you engage in surveillance and break that trust, you'll teach them not to talk to you.''
In her work for the Internet Safety Technical Task Force of US state attorneys-general in 2008, Dr Boyd found the children most at risk of harm online - through cyber bullying or contact with predators - were the ones most at risk offline. Youth workers and educators should be trained to look for signs online that a teen was in trouble, Dr Boyd said, rather than assume the internet was the cause.
- Sydney Morning Herald