THE BLOG

The Clementi Suicide, Privacy, and How We Are Failing Generation Google

10/07/2010 11:16 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011
  • Daniel J. Solove John Marshall Harlan Research Professor, George Washington University Law School

The tragic suicide of Tyler Clementi has been raising awareness of the profound issue of privacy and young people. Two students, Dharun Ravi and Molly Wei, have been criminally charged with invasion of privacy for secretly recording Clementi's sexual activities in his dorm room and then disseminating the video on the Internet.

The media coverage often paints the story in the typical black-and-white fashion, with Ravi and Wei castigated as malevolent and evil. The facts remain unclear, and I wonder whether they acted out of hatred, or cruelty, or mere insensitivity and stupidity. What is clear is that they likely didn't realize how hurtful and damaging invasions of privacy can be. They likely didn't realize that they'd be a factor in a young man's death. Nor did they realize that what they were doing was a crime punishable with significant jail time.

This tragic episode might be the center of the media's attention, but it isn't an isolated occurrence. Cyberbullying is rampant among our youth. Some studies show that more than 40% of young people claim to have been victimized by cyberbullying at some point in their lives. Countless victims suffer emotional distress, leading to mental breakdowns and a number of suicides.

One of the reasons this is occurring is because we aren't doing a sufficient job combating cyberbullying. Another reason is that we are failing to educate young people about privacy and the consequences of self-disclosure and revelation of information about others. The members of the generation growing up today -- what I call "Generation Google" -- must live with extensive information about themselves online, available anywhere in the world by doing a simple Google search. Their lives are being affected in profound ways, and they are not being given adequate guidance and education about privacy.

There are, of course, the typical anemic warnings for young people to be mindful of privacy, but other messages in our society are saying something different. They are pushing young people to disclose information. Various websites urge people to share more. In many subtle and not-so-subtle ways, sites are encouraging people to disclose more intimate information. Despite occasional weak warnings such as "Think before you post," the predominant message is "Please share everything about yourself."

Children and young adults are putting up far too much personal information online, and they don't understand the consequences. One recent study by Microsoft revealed that 70% of employers rejected potential employees because of information found out about them online. Information about young people can readily be used by kidnappers, molesters, and others bent on doing them harm. It can also be exploited by identity thieves, as identity theft is rampant for children and teens because it isn't detected as quickly as when adults are victimized.
Teens are sexting - sending nude pictures of themselves to boyfriends and girlfriends - and in several cases are being prosecuted for violating child porn laws.

For a long time, young people could experiment, do foolish things, and make mistakes yet still have the opportunity to have a second chance. No longer. So much information about their lives is now recorded and available online. People shouldn't have to live their entire lives with limited opportunities because of something stupid they did when they were a teenager or college student.

We aren't teaching members of Generation Google how to manage their privacy. We often don't take privacy seriously enough. Privacy violations are frequently seen as a minor injury, an embarrassment and little more. Exposure is celebrated everywhere, from the popularity of reality TV shows to the fame and fortune earned by many tell-all bloggers. In the face of all this, tepid warnings of over-exposure are not enough to counter the powerful messages to bare all secrets to the world.

We aren't doing a good job of helping young people understand the importance of privacy - their own privacy and that of others. They need to realize the profound seriousness of privacy violations, how much privacy matters in people's lives. The Clementi tragedy wasn't just due to the bad actions of Ravi and Wei - it was also the product of our culture, which far too often isn't taking privacy seriously enough and isn't adequately teaching young people the consequences of their actions online.

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Daniel J. Solove in the John Marshall Harlan Research Professor of Law at George Washington University Law School. He is the author of several books about privacy, including The Future of Reputation: Gossip, Rumor, and Privacy on the Internet.