Peeking In on Teens' Private Web Pages

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Do teens who post personal stories and photos on Web sites like Facebook really expect they'll be safe from the prying eyes of adults? If so, are adults wrong to take a peek? That's this week's question for New York Times ethicist Randy Cohen.


This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Debbie Elliott.

The locked diary under your teenager's pillow is a thing of the past. These days, kids are documenting their lives online on social networking Web sites like FaceBook and MySpace.

But kids aren't the only ones cruising FaceBook. This week's letter to our ethicist, Randy Cohen, comes from a listener who's worried about high school officials using FaceBook to keep tabs on their students, even off campus. Nancy asked that we not use her last name. We have her on the line now. Hello.

NANCY: Hello, how are you?

ELLIOTT: Good. Randy is also on the line with us. Welcome again, Randy.

RANDY COHEN: Hi, Debbie. Hi, Nancy.

ELLIOTT: Nancy, you wrote to us that the administration at your son's high school has access to FaceBook, and that's causing some problems with the students there.

NANCY: Yes, it has been. I guess I should back up and let you know that athletes at our school - and it's pretty common in this area - signed a commitment saying that they won't use alcohol or they won't be anywhere where alcohol is being used, and that's fine, that's, you know, that's the way it is.

But what had happened about a year and a half ago was apparently an anonymous source had printed a number of photos from FaceBook and put them on the desk of the principal of the school, who then went through the photos. And any athlete who was in season in the photos was then suspended from the sports team for a period of two weeks.

ELLIOTT: And what was in these photos?

NANCY: Just pictures of kids at parties. There wasn't necessarily alcohol in the picture with the specific athlete, but if it looked like it was the same parties, and there was someone in another picture holding a beer can, then the students that were at the party were suspended.

And then again this year, what we were told was that the administration has a FaceBook address, and they went through looking again, and they found a series of six pictures - again - of, you know, high school athletes at a party, and they were drinking water, but in one of the pictures, in the background, I think there was a beer sitting on a table, and so again these three particular athletes were suspended from their sports team for two weeks.

So I guess my question is, is this ethical for the high school to be perusing this kind of thing specifically to get kids into trouble? It's out there in the public domain, but I think the kids feel it's like an invasion of their privacy to a certain extent, and I guess that's my question: is that ethical?

ELLIOTT: Are these pictures that the athletes themselves are posting on the Web?

NANCY: No, no. It seems to often be girls that like to take these photos and post them on the FaceBook pages. And I think it's a sense of, you know, we're having fun, we're at a party, we're having a good time. And the purpose is not, you know, oh goodie, there's alcohol. It's just that that that happens to be in the background in some of the pictures.

ELLIOTT: Randy, I guess we should have you weigh in here. Do you think this is an invasion of privacy, for school officials to be trawling through FaceBook, looking for evidence of violations of school policy?

COHEN: I do. I think this is - the school is overreaching here, and I think trawling is a well-chosen verb. Nancy got at just the contradiction that's implicit in all this when she said it's - in some sense, this material is public, but the kids regard it as private, and that's where the conflict pivots.

As a legal matter, when you post something online, it's akin to publishing; you do make it public. But kids see it differently, if foolishly, as much more akin to a paper diary. While this may be a foolish misconception, the school should not exploit their foolishness. The school would do much better to educate them both about the implications of posting online where you can reveal things imprudently that you don't wish to make public and about drinking. It's a fine policy that high school students shouldn't be drinking at parties, but exploiting and betraying the confidence of these kids doesn't seem quite right.

ELLIOTT: Now, if this is something that's in the public domain that other kids are out there looking at, why would students not expect adults or school officials to look at it?

COHEN: Because teenagers are not in a phase of life associated with great prudence. Teenagers do all sorts of foolish things. It's a phase of life famous for it. If you know that about kids, it seems awfully letter of the law, awfully legalistic for the school, then, to go trawling around: there's been no complaint, there's been no problem with anyone drinking. They're simply betraying the trust of these children and exploiting their misconception. That's no way to treat kids. Adults, you're on your own, you should know better. But children, we should teach them, not betray their trust.

ELLIOTT: Well, Nancy, thank you for writing to the ethicist.

NANCY: Thank you for answering my question, and I really appreciate hearing from you. Thank you so much.

COHEN: You're quite welcome.

ELLIOTT: Randy Cohen writes "The Ethicist" column in the New York Times magazine. And if you'd like him to shed light on your ethical dilemmas, write to us. Go to our Web site,, click on Contact Us, and select WEEKEND ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. Put the word "ethicist" in the subject line, and please include a phone number where we can reach you.

Randy, good to talk to you as always.

COHEN: I enjoyed it, Debbie. Thank you.

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