Thinking About Kids

Parents, kids, and the way we live together

Sharing Privacy and Secrets Betrayed

Lack of understanding of rules for sharing can lead to violations of trust.

The idea of privacy is fundamental to thinking about many aspects of social relationships, icnluding intimacy, communication, and trust.  Last Spring, I wrote a series of posts about why adolescents choose to share information about their lives with their parents and about why many kids just don't.  Sharing information is critically important to effective parenting.  Parents can't prevent problems, respond appropriately to misbehavior, or provide support if they don't know what's going on in their child's life.  

Adolescents' decisions to share information with parents is fundamentally about privacy.  

Although many people think of privacy as keeping things away from other people, Sandra Petronio's Communication Privacy Management Theory conceptualizes it as fundamentally about relationships.  This work was first described in full in her 2002 book  Boundaries of privacy: Dialectics of disclosure.  

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This figure is my representation of how this works in family.

There are four major constructs important in understanding CPM theory: 

  • privacy boundaries
  • permeability
  • boundary owership
  • boundary turbulence

In this illustration, we have a small family: daughter, mother, and father.  The daughter has information that is known only to her - information that is private.  The smallest orange ring around her represents the boundary between that which is private to her and known to others.  

Privacy boundaries can be thick or thin.  Thick boundaries are the deepest darkest secrets that we don't share with anyone else.  Other boundaries can be permeable.  Permeable boundaries are ones where information passes back and forth.  When the daughter tells her mother private information, she has made that boundary permeable and has now shared boundary ownership with her.  This is presented by the larger orange circle that encompasses the daughter and her mother.  By telling her mother this information, she has now given her mother joint ownership of that information.  

Shared boundaries: This is where it gets tricky.  

If only the daughter knows the private information, she can choose to tell others or not at her whim.  But as soon as she has shared that information and extended ownership of that boundary to her mom, multiple people can choose to share that boundary or not.  

Why does the daughter share information? Well she might have lots of reasons.  She might need support or advice from her mom.  She might feel it's her duty to tell her mom, as her mom may need this information to act in her role as parent.  Her mother might even require her to share the information, for example, when a mother refuses to let the daughter go to a party unless she tells her mom who will be there.  

There are pros and cons and sharing any private information.

Boundary turbulence:

What happens once the boundary becomes shared?  At least two things. 

First, at this point extending that boundary is governed by explicit or implicit rules.  For example, the daughter may share information with the assumption that the mother will not tell anyone else.  She may even make this rule explicit by TELLING the mother she can't tell anyone else.  

Often, however, the rules are implicit.  And here is where we get to boundary turbulence.

The daughter tells her mom something, assuming her mom will keep it to herself.

The mother assumes that the daughter knows that anything she knows will be shared with her husband.  So the mom extends the privacy boundary out to include him.  That's the larger blue circle.  

Mother and daughter both know the information is private.

Mother and daughter both know there are rules about sharing the information.

But they each had a different understanding of those rules.

That leads to boundary turbulence - the disturbances or conflict caused by disagreements about rules.  

How that gets worked out - and whether it does - depends on many things, including the degree of violation, the perception of the motivations for violation, whether or not the violation was seen as accidental, etc.  And that is whole other area of research.

Contextual integrity

Another thing that can cause boundary turbulence might be different understandings of contextual integrity.  For example, the daughter might share private information with her mother because she needs social support.  For example, she might tell her mother she is worried about failing a math test.  That information is shared with a specific purpose in mind - getting support.

But what if her mother uses that information in a different context - as a socializer who sees her role as helping her child become an excellent student?  By telling her mother that she is worried about a test, the daughter may be asking for emotional help.  However, it may prompt the mother to tighten rules or make her study.  

Philosopher Helen Nissenbaum talks about private information being shared in one context (to get support) and then used in another (to set stricter rules) as a violation of the information's contextual integrity.  

Often violations of privacy stem from such concerns.  For example, I might share a lot of information with my doctor in the context of getting good healthcare.  If my doctor then wrote a long funny book that included information about me I would feel violated - even if no one could tell that the story was about me.

The reason was only partly that my privacy boundaries were violated.  Can they be if no one knows it is me that the doctor is talking about?

Rather, I might feel that information shared for one specific purpose is being used in another way than it was intended.  And that would make me angry even though my privacy was actually intact.  

The implications of contextual integrity for sharing information on the internet and what happens to our online information are interesting indeed.  But that's another post.

Nancy Darling, Ph.D., is a Professor at Oberlin College.

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