There has been a rash of irresponsible decisions by parents and national media in forcing national exposure on children who are clearly below an age for any reasonable definition of consent. An oft-stated argument is that the exposure was about “something with which there is nothing wrong” and therefore exposure is okay.
That is wrong and a dangerous view of privacy. I think every adult can ponder this for 60 seconds and come up with parts of their life with which there is “nothing wrong” but they would not want subjected to national exposure.
Further, that view gravely misunderstands privacy and the right to consent. Privacy is not something to be granted only if you prove you deserve it; on the contrary, there should be a strong reason to violate it.
Finally, privacy is contextual and different levels of exposure are not the same thing. Being a transgendered kid in a school is a significantly different experience than having national media articles about your transgendered experience as a six-year-old be the defining features of your online presence.
An example that particularly outraged me was the Time magazine cover last year that showed a mom shown breastfeeding her almost-four-year old kid –in a very unnatural position set up to maximize exposure—with her name printed on the cover–and the kid looking directly into the camera, along with the awful headline “Are you Mom Enough?”
To be clear, there is nothing wrong with breastfeeding a kid that age—though, historically speaking many cultures wean children around two or three years of age. Women want to breastfeed in public? That’s fine too, and if anyone is disturbed they can look away. It’s their problem. Time Magazine wants to do a story on lengthier than usual breastfeeding? Go right ahead–and please talk about lack of maternity leave for new parents (US is the worst among most developed nations) which makes it hard for most women to breastfeed at all.
But when a four year old is asked to stand on a stool –a very weird set-up pretending to be about attachment parenting but is all about the photograph– and look directly to the camera and be on the cover of a national magazine, you have to discuss the issue of consent by children.
While consent can be tricky at times, in cases like this, it’s not. A four year-old cannot understand the concept of national exposure, let alone consent to it. And the media should not override that child’s privacy interests without a very strong reason balanced by that child’s best interests. Let’s not manufacture “controversy” when there should be none, and let’s not pretend a ploy to grab attention is actually about parenting, or that child’s own best interests.
A more recent, but more nuanced, case was the story of a transgender child who was named and photographed in a profile by the New York Times. The NYT public editor, Margaret Sullivan wrote on her blog that the decision to name the child was made because “parental approval, along with the child’s own willingness, should rule the day” and that since either was nothing wrong with being transgender, there were no “privacy concerns” to balance in this case.
First, that young a child’s willingness is meaningless and invoking it is irresponsible. And parents do not own their children’s consent, they are merely entrusted with it–which means that children’s best interests need to be considered.
Second, the idea that if there is nothing wrong with something therefore there are no issues of privacy regarding that topic is probably the most dangerous misunderstanding about privacy out there. Let’s explore both.
First on consent by children: my research means that I mostly talk with and survey two age groups—middle schoolers and college students. I find that it’s hard for even those age groups –much much older than the preschoolers and elementary school kids we are talking about here– to understand national exposure, or to deal with consequences of such decisions. With college students, obviously, we assume that they are young adults–even there, we still need to do a lot more to educate them as they, too, struggle deal with the ramifications of privacy in a networked world where exposure can get out of control much quicker and in hard-to-anticipate manner. Middle schoolers, on the other hand, often have little thought of exposure beyond their peer groups and also find it difficult to conceptualize the life-transitions that they may go through. (Has everyone really forgotten what it is like to be that age?)
Preschoolers consenting to national exposure? Heck, as sociologist Kieran Healy said in a tweet replying to me, a six year old will consent to most anything if you promise them ice cream. I am aghast that this is not obvious. They cannot understand the concept of national exposure.
— Kieran Healy (@kjhealy) March 20, 2013
As children get older, their ability consent and understanding grows and one starts entering gray areas and societally, we draw an arbitrary line around that gray area and declare eighteen to be adult. I understand that a teenager may decide to choose national exposure–and sometimes such issues can get tricky. I am not at all advocating that trans or queer kids hide –in fact, I’m all for making their schooling experience, as much as possible, separated from their experience of gender tensions.
Second, let’s get to the question of that erroneous understanding of privacy: “if there is nothing wrong with X, then there are no considerations of privacy of exposure.” Put in your favorite X here: breastfeeding, transgender children, who your friends are on Facebook, what movies you like or hate…
Privacy and exposure and contextual variables and are not about secrets from everyone but about your integrity as a person and your right to share information about yourself on your own terms. (Hellen Nissenbaum’s “Privacy in Context” and Daniel J. Solove’s “Nothing to Hide” are two great primers on this topic). The opposite of “secret” or “shameful” is not “national exposure is okay.” Who in any position of power applies that principle to everything about their own lives? How can we justify forcing that view of privacy on children?
There are a lot of complex issues to deal with here—for example, what right do other parties to a social interaction have to reveal its contents? When is an otherwise private matter of public concern? What should consensual privacy decisions look like and how do we deal with violations? How can we education children and young adults who are struggling with these issues? But then there are other issues on which we can draw clearer lines.
Let me give a deliberately provocative example: child sexuality. If you read any research or talk to any preschool teacher, you find that it is normal and fairly common for very young children to have an emergent sense of sexuality. They ask questions, they explore, they touch, they feel. There is nothing wrong with this if kids are allowed to be kids and not drawn into dealing with this on adult terms or be subjected to adult manipulations. Can we or should we nationally expose any one child’s emergent sexuality for adult consumption because there is nothing wrong with it per se? No, no, no.
So, let’s get back to the case of this transgender child. I applaud her parents for advocating for her. As they have already found out, this can be difficult for children to navigate. Schools should try to help all children feel welcome and to destigmatize the spectrum of human experience. That age group (like middle-schoolers) often goes through a heightened gender-stereotype period (which comes up in my research) where they become overly-rigidly attached to gender categories in ways they will likely grow out of (the attack of the princess period, the crazy overdone makeup of middle schoolers, etc.)
In the case of this child, though, per parents advocating for her does not mean she has consented to be a “quite literally, the poster child” for this issue. We do not know if she will grow up preferring to not be known as having transitioned to another gender. Maybe she’ll change her mind. It happens and we should give her the space to do so (the definition of freedom, no?) which is obviously harder as a “poster child” with national exposure. Maybe she’ll really prefer not to have this issue define her middle and high school experience (which, barring a name change, her parents have all but guaranteed). Maybe she will want to be a poster child in her own terms. I don’t know, you don’ know, and neither do the parents.
This clearly calls for erring on the side of caution–and the best interest of the child is the space to make her decisions on her own terms, not under a crushing media spotlight.
How about kids with Down Syndrome or autism, asks Margaret Sullivan’s piece. It’s a similar issue but there are obviously differences. For one thing, both of those are more visible differences so a child often does not have a choice on whether their peers know their atypical attributes. On the other hand, a transgendered child may have an experience where many of her peers approach her without that issue in the foreground at all. Further, of course parents of kids with disabilities and media should consider if their kids can consent to be “poster children” for their circumstances. It will dramatically impact their experience growing up in this networked environment. The answer is not an automatic yes.
So, here are some thoughts on how to approach this topic:
1- Is the name and photo of the child essential to the story? If not, please consider caution to be prudent.
2- Is the child too young to appreciate national exposure and therefore cannot consent? If yes, please assume no consent and ask the next question. (Should be obvious that preschoolers cannot consent and I’d argue that anyone below middle school should be“no consent” and be evaluated case-by-case after that age.)
3–Is there a very specific, tangible and important benefit to the child from the exposure that cannot be gained without the name and the photo? (Surely, the same article can be written without the name or the photo of the kid in this case, no?). For example, a kidnapped child and an “amber alert” clearly fit into this category. Plastering the kid’s photo on the national news might save the kids life so, yes, let’s do that. But, always, we should also ask the last question:
4-Can we reasonably assume circumstances that the child grows up and wishes the exposure never happened? If yes, can we consider this again?
As a final note, I do know that The New York Times argues that “Katie Couric did it first” by having the parents and the child on the show. Well, that was clearly wrong of the parents and the Katie Couric show–but that doesn’t make subsequent exposures okay. In any case, I wrote more to make the principles explicit than judge which exposure was worst or who gets the most blame.
Finally, I really wish that parents, editors of national media, highly-visible websites, and anyone who feels that it is their prerogative to push this level of exposure on children would recognize that its heart, this is an exercise of power over a vulnerable individual. There may be cases in which there is good reason to do so but “the six-year old child consented” and “there’s nothing wrong with the thing being exposed” are not good reasons.
I end with Khalil Gibran’s timeless poem “On Children.”
Your children are not your children.
They are the sons and daughters of Life’s longing for itself.
They come through you but not from you,
And though they are with you yet they belong not to you.
You may give them your love but not your thoughts,
For they have their own thoughts.
You may house their bodies but not their souls,
For their souls dwell in the house of tomorrow,
which you cannot visit, not even in your dreams.
You may strive to be like them,
but seek not to make them like you.
For life goes not backward nor tarries with yesterday.
You are the bows from which your children
as living arrows are sent forth.
The archer sees the mark upon the path of the infinite,
and He bends you with His might
that His arrows may go swift and far.
Let your bending in the archer’s hand be for gladness;
For even as He loves the arrow that flies,
so He loves also the bow that is stable.