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Dubai Abulhoul: Children’s Right to Privacy
August 09, 2018
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If there’s any lesson that my third grade computer teacher made sure my classmates and I remembered by heart, it is this: do not share any personal information online. Little did my teacher know that she was addressing a group of seven-year -olds that would, in a matter of a few years, become the generation that shared more personal information in public than any generation before it in history.

Social media has, rather quickly, woven itself seamlessly into the fabric of our everyday lives. We have grown accustomed to its signal-dependent omnipresence. The fact that I know what a friend I haven’t seen in years ate for lunch today, as well as which flight she boarded last week, shows the extent of which we have been desensitised to the amount of information shared on our various social media platforms.The consequences of this historically unprecedented increase in connectivity has been a subject of heated debate in the past few years, as it should be. The effect it has on the lives of children, however, has been given less attention, even though it has the potential to impact both their individual and collective futures the most.

While my generation and I spent a significant part of our teenage years on social media, we were still the ones in control of what we shared on different online platforms, regardless of the vague understanding we had of the consequences doing so would entail. Children today, on the other hand, do not, and will not, share the same experience growing up.

Children now have their digital identities created for them, instead of by them. In sharing photos and videos of a child online, parents and family members, intentionally or otherwise, create a digital identity of that child that will exist forever on the internet. The child, in return, will have to live with the consequences of having a digital identity that he or she was not aware of, and did not have a say in creating in the first place, for the rest of his or her life. Do, and should, children have a right to privacy when it comes to their presence on different social media platforms?

While sharing a photo of a laughing toddler or a mischievous child might seem harmless at first, realising that this content will forever exist online, and be accessible to anyone with an internet signal around the world, should make us think twice before hitting the share button. I have encountered one too many videos of children crying over something that has upset them in a given moment, only to see that the person who is responsible for sharing it has also added a caption that poked fun at what the child was upset about.

Children should be able to live their childhoods, with all their embarrassing and confusing moments, without having the entire world watching, often in real time as well. Children have also been used as a tool by online ‘influencers’ to gain popularity through accumulating a large number of followers, as well as using them to promote paid advertisements. The ethics behind the use of children in the context of the social media ‘influencer’ umbrella requires a separate and more thorough analysis, but it is an example of what has been happening to children, who do not understand how and why they have been used in such a way, by their own parents and family members.

As the child grows and starts attending early stages of schooling, the likelihood that he or she would be exposed to increased bullying by peers is not something that should be taken lightly. At any given moment, a class bully could pull up an embarrassing photo or video of a child, which has been shared by that child’s own family members, and publicly make fun of the photo or video at hand. When that child goes back home to ask why his or her photos and videos were shared online, I doubt that ‘it gave us a lot of likes’ would be a very convincing answer.

This article invites an open debate on how sharing significant parts of children’s lives online can affect various social, emotional, and professional aspects of their futures. I do not claim to know all the right answers to the questions surrounding this issue, nor do I think we should settle on only one answer. What I hope to see happen is an open and honest conversation about children’s right to online privacy, as well as a heightened sense of awareness on the effects sharing too much information on social media has on, and what it means for, the future of younger generations.

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The author is an Emirati novelist-writer

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