I didn’t sleep much last night. I felt sick inside over the suicide of a young man whose privacy had been horribly invaded. There will be those who lump this case in with what is often referred to as “cyberbullying,” but cyberbullying does not necessarily involve invasion of privacy. The suicide of Tyler Clementi is about privacy in its most element form — to be able to engage in sexual activity in the privacy of your own space without prying eyes.
Back in August, I blogged about my concerns that schools were grooming students for a surveillance state in which they are growing up with reduced expectations of privacy. At other times, I’ve covered news stories about whether the younger generation has abandoned its privacy or is less concerned about privacy. Whether it’s the schools, Facebook, parents trying to be “friends” with their kids or electronically snooping on their kids, or anything else, the bottom line is that although privacy is certainly not dead, respect for privacy is in peril.
We are failing our children if we do not teach them that not only do they have a right to personal privacy, but they have a responsibility to respect others’ privacy, too. The tragic case of Tyler Clementi, which Kashmir Hill discusses on Forbes, the “Star Wars” kid video that Daniel Solove discussed in his book The Future of Reputation, or any of a number of cases where teens have either been the victims of a privacy invasion or the perpetrators – all of these cases signal a failure to teach respect for privacy. And in some cases, these privacy invasions have had tragic consequences. Whether Clementi killed himself out of depression or out of anger and desire to get revenge on his roommate or for some other reason is unknown to me, and as a psychologist, I will not speculate about his mental state. What does seem evident, however, is that had it not been for the actions of others who invaded his privacy, he would almost certainly be alive today.
Older teens and young adults are old enough to consent to having their privacy invaded. They are also old enough to take responsibility for invading others’ privacy. I’ve little doubt that many will clamor for new laws criminalizing the conduct of the two students involved in the Clementi case. Suddenly, five years for invasion of privacy will seem too light a penalty. Where were all these people when many of us kept warning others that we need more privacy protections, not less. Where have the courts been when many of us have urged them to recognize privacy harms that are not just unreimbursed financial losses or demonstrable impact such as job discrimination?
And can we really hold young privacy invaders accountable or responsible if we have failed to teach them what our parents taught us? Knowing that what you are doing is wrong is one thing. Fully appreciating how devastating a privacy invasion can be is another.
Being a parent is the toughest job on earth. When was the last time you had a conversation with your child about privacy and respect for boundaries?