Monday, January 25, 2016

Photos and Privacy

What is privacy?

I'm reading Danah Boyd's It's Complicated: The Social Life of Networked Teens as part of TVO's Teach Ontario online book club. We'll be discussing Chapter 2, on privacy, starting January 25. Some of the definitions of privacy, as mentioned in Boyd's book, are: the right to be left alone / a measure of access that others have to you through information, attention, and physical proximity / the claim of individuals, groups and institutions to determine when, how, and to what extent information can be communicated to others. (This is paraphrased from page 59.)

This notion of privacy is very relevant to me right now because of a discussion we're having at my son's school about the ability to take photographs at school events. I'm not going to mention the school or board or principal by name because I'd like to respect everyone's privacy - but I'm still writing about the issue online because my blog is a place for me to reflect on educational matters and gain other perspectives. It's a battle between "private space vs personal expression" (Boyd page 53). 

The administrator at my son's school has made it clear, both at the Curriculum Night Open House and Christmas Concert, that visitors are not permitted to take photographs during events such as these. This will also include school graduation ceremonies. At our recent Parent Council meeting, we were given a copy of the board's policy, which says "The recording and taking of photographic images of a person or persons, on school property, at school events, and during school activities and/or hours, is prohibited without the permission of the person or persons being photographed or the principal or designate". The principal is concerned, and justifiably so, with keeping students safe. Photos can be manipulated, distorted and distributed widely. Sensitive custody battles can be made more fraught with difficulties if adults discover the whereabouts of certain children. 

I understand the concerns of our principal but I cannot help but feel that this is very strict and by banning photographs of students entirely, some community goodwill and educational opportunities might be lost. Our Parent Council chairperson brought a FAQ document about access and privacy in the school system that states, "A school should develop a workable policy regarding the taking of photographs of its students on school property or at school events by non-board employees. Such a policy should be developed in consultation with parents/guardians and communicated to them." To be clear, this FAQ was written by a different school board and the Communications Department of the Information and Privacy Commissioner. I really hope that some consensus can be found so that everyone's needs are met.

As a teacher, I am very careful with my students' privacy and our use of photos. I use photographs as part of my assessment practices - which is very handy when evaluating work in Drama and Dance. I've attended workshops and read articles written by my union that advise using caution when dealing with recordings (but still allows photography) - e.g. posting photos online only of work or the backs of students' heads, or using school equipment to take student photographs, etc. As the school yearbook coordinator, I've touched base with parents for clarification, who have signed "no" to the board's media release forms, and all of them have agreed to allow their child's photo in the yearbook as they pose for their class shot or as part of team and club group photos. As long as the photos are used positively and responsibly, they have no problem with pictures. Online arenas are what scare people. 

As a parent, I also try to be respectful of my own children's privacy. Intensive parents that constantly and intrusively monitor their teens' online activities are considered "good parents", but going overboard with surveillance is oppressive (Boyd, page 74) and indicates a lack of trust between parent and child. Sometimes, parents don't always practice what they preach in terms of online privacy. There are many parenting blogs out there that share too much, especially regarding children that have special needs. What digital footprint or online legacy are they creating for their own sons and daughters? Privacy is not just for adults. Teens also desire privacy, but research demonstrating this is often ignored by mass media in favor of the general stereotype of teens as chronic over sharers (Boyd page 56). I try to keep references to my own son and daughter positive, and I often ask their permission before mentioning them on my blog or taking a photo of them and posting it on social media. (I avoid sharing photos on Facebook because the privacy settings change so frequently.)  Here was a photo my daughter allowed me to post on Twitter - it demonstrates her passion for reading, something neither of us mind revealing to the world.

There are many other points that I want to reflect on after reading Chapter 2 of this book, but I'll save some of that discussion for the Teach Ontario book discussion group. Go to and use your board-designed email address to join.

1 comment:

  1. Nice post! I feel for admin who are trying to figure this out. I think your point about communication is well taken. Any time I've specifically asked a parent if it's okay to use a photo, they've said "yes" right away. And I also double-check with my kids before posting anything about them! I think these conversations will continue to need to happen. There are legitimate concerns, but, as ever, we need to strive for balance.