Framing Internet Safety, by Nathan W. Fisk, is a fascinating study of the surveillance and governance of youth online.
According to Fisk, the rhetoric of “protecting the children” has been a key part of most attempts at regulating the internet, such as the Communications Decency Act, whether targeted at offensive content, online predators, or more recent concerns around “cyberbullying”. While not completely imaginary concerns, there tends to be a rather large mismatch between the threats emphasized in the media, and the things that worry the people directly concerned.
For parents, the largest worry seems to be that their children will share something online which could negatively impact future employment prospects (or would be thought to be inappropriate by other parents), and most are actively engaged in monitoring their children’s behaviour, either by watching their social media presence, or by asserting the right to inspect their phones or computers (in a way that many presumably would not do with a diary, for example). Children, meanwhile, have been inundated with warnings about online predators to the point that it has become a cliché, and are much more concerned with real life interactions, and with staying out of “the drama” online.
Administrators apparently have some tools at their disposal, but these materials tend to be outdated and rely on fear mongering more than they provide useful tools or knowledge. The fact that the only resources readily available may come from the police further reinforces the sense that typical teen behaviour is being criminalized. Online filtering or blocking software used by schools, meanwhile, tends to be highly normative, tagging posts with the word “gay”, for example, as potentially profane or risky.
Parents fear that their children understand the technology much better than they do, and yet still take advantage of gaps in their children’s knowledge, falsely claiming, for example, that they could get copies of all their children’s text messages from the phone company. For their part, youth are better able to navigate online spaces, and yet may also lack certain knowledge about what is possible or how the world works.
Not surprisingly, those placed under the microscope respond to the systems that are put in place, in some cases spending time texting each other from the school bathrooms, as those may be the only places in the school without surveillance cameras. Some kids do still use Facebook, but apparently more as a way of having a semi-public persona for their parents to monitor, while more serious communications are conducted over more private applications, such as SnapChat. All in all, it seems like everyone is basically lying to everyone else.
Fisk, meanwhile, contextualizes his own book with an introductory chapter on the difficulty of carrying out this research. Because children are constructed to be an “at-risk” category, it is ironically all the more difficult to get permission to ask them about potentially sensitive topics, like surveillance.
As may be apparent, the main argument running throughout the book is that the discourses around risk and vulnerability are used as a justification for the expansion of technologies of surveillance and control, which further restrict the spaces where children are able to engage in exploration or free expression, and thus marginalize these activities or push them into more private spaces.
In Fisk’s words,
“By restricting and circumscribing young lives, the instrumental relationships of youth Internet safety discourses reproduce the conditions of youth vulnerability and violence. The continued securing of youth and childhood online further constrains the spaces within which youth may occupy free of surveillance, delegitimates situated perspectives and knowledges, and instills suspicion and distrust into family and peer relationships. … The restricting and securing of young people drive their search for workarounds and cool new spaces, identities, and relationships that allow new forms of agency and control. Any visible transgressions of childhood — the risky and violent behaviors of youth — are framed in terms of technologies and underdeveloped brains rather than in terms of structure and power.” (p. 187)
Although he does not spend a lot of time on policy suggestions, Fisk’s proposal is basically that, while not ignoring the real risks that children face, we should take their perspectives more seriously, and empower them with knowledge about the systems in which they operate, including the systems of surveillance to which they are subject.