Is privacy the next public health problem?

This week, activist and science fiction writer Cory Doctorow called ‘oversharing’ on social networks a ‘public health problem’ of similar ilk to smoking or obesity.

Lucy Handley

What he means is there is a gap between the cause of the problem and its consequences. So the potential effects of smoking such as heart disease and cancer don’t happen for several years after taking up the habit. Similarly, posting drunken pictures on Facebook or arguing with your girlfriend over Twitter might seem fun at the time but in years to come they could hold you up to ridicule, contribute to you losing your job or even your life (if you live in a dictatorship, says Doctorow).

As he says: “If every slice of pizza turned into an instantaneous roll of cellulite, it would be much easier to moderate one’s eating.”

Thirteen is age at which children are allowed to join Facebook, but I know children as young as 10 who are on the site, excited about gathering friends, liking pages and following celebrities. So at what point do they give their kids control over the images they’re putting up of them? The age when they become adults seems rather late.

Which leads to the question: what is privacy? Will young people in the future know what it is? Will privacy be something that is only in your head in the future, having lived your entire life on a social network, started by your parents celebrating your birth, your first day without nappies, your christening or Bat Mitzvah?

Sites such as Snapchat – where people can send photos and videos which are only available to see for a number of seconds – are designed to let people get a handle on privacy (or send rude images that will only be briefly available), according to the founders. ‘Control how long you want your friends to view your messages,’ the site says. But reports today suggest that the pictures never actually disappear, with one YouTube user uploading a video showing how to find deleted pictures on his iPhone.

The government is getting involved with privacy by trying to get it on to the school curriculum. This year the Information Commissioner’s Office is trialling privacy ‘lessons’ in two schools with plans to roll it out by the end of the year.

In the same way that children are taught that smoking and drinking is bad and will have negative effects in decades to come, they will also be taught that keeping personal stuff private is positive now and in the future. Let’s hope they remember those lessons forever.

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