Here’s the problem. First, we have officers becoming roadkill on the information highway—ending their careers, or being disciplined, for not understanding the boundary between their private online lives and their public lives as officers.
Second, we have police agencies with no social media guidelines to help their officers navigate a constantly changing online world that is way ahead of legislation or court decisions.
Or, we have policies that haven’t kept pace. The International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP) completed a laudable undertaking last year and issued a report on cybervetting police applicants. The report concluded that applicants could be asked to access password protected online material for the recruiter or background investigator to review.
While this is arguably legal, we saw that in last month’s article Digging Up Officers’ Digital Dirt that more than one public safety agency has sparked a media firestorm, public backlash and proposed limiting legislation by asking job applicants to volunteer their online usernames and passwords.
Cause of the Problem
There are generational gaps in how people view online privacy. To develop effective social media policies, police agencies must understand these gaps and then know how to address them. We’ll begin that process in this article.
First, Let’s Define Our Terms
Give or take two to four years up or down, depending on which expert you consult, here’s the age breakdowns for the four generations in the work place:
- Traditionalists: 65 and older
- Baby Boomers: 46–65
- Gen X: 32–45
- Gen Y: 31 and younger
When you look at the changes in technology in the last 60 years it’s no wonder we have generational gaps—not just in how the generations use technology but in how the changing technology has shaped each generation’s perspectives.
Traditionalists grew up with crystal radio sets and rotary phones. Baby Boomers grew up with TV and touch phones. Gen X came of age with cell phones and the Wide World Web while Gen Y’s were tweens and teens with smart phones and social media networking. And they’re all mixing in the same workplace.
Leaps in Technology
Try explaining a party line to people whose first phone was a smart one. I could tell my Gen X and Y readers to google “party line” but here’s what it was:
- Different families shared the same phone line.
- Each family had a distinctive ring (we’re talking different combinations of short and long rings—not different “ringtones” you download from the internet).
- The calls to each family rang on everyone else’s phone that shared that line.
- If you were a busybody you could pick up the phone when the ring wasn’t yours and listen in on someone else’s conversation.
- Everyone knew there were busybodies. We heard them breathing on our conversations.
I am not kidding! P.S. Your phone was connected to a wall and you could only use it to receive or make oral phone calls.
I haven’t met a Baby Boomer, myself included, that doesn’t recall the smell of mimeograph machines and their purple ink with nostalgia. I asked some younger officers if they knew what a mimeograph machine was and one surmised it was a machine used to check for breast cancer.
On the other hand, I have yet to tweet on Twitter, however alluring I find the 140 character limit. The great orator Cicero said, “Brevity is a great charm of eloquence,” altho im nt sur he was tlkng abt twtng, LOL, BFN or IMHO.
Gaps in Generational Reactions to the Technology
All the generations may have experienced the changes in technology, but their reactions differ. My 16-year-old grandson picks up a new tech toy and his fingers start flying over it likes he’s playing the banjo duel in Deliverance. I still complain that it doesn’t come with a printed user’s manual.
As of 2010, Gen Y outnumbered Baby Boomers and 96% of the Gen Ys had joined a social network. E-mail has become passé. Students used to check their emails on the sly in class or exceeded their monthly voice minutes on their family's cell phone plan. Now using a phone for talking or emailing is out of style with many.
College student Bryan Thornton, 24, hasn't checked his email in a week and says, "Texting and Twitter kind of make using email pointless. I used to check it all the time, but now I have over 1,000 unread messages in my inbox. If someone wants to contact me instantly, they can just shoot me a text."
There’s a video film project on YouTube, Online Social Networking and the Generation Gap, that provides some insight into our topic. From it I gleaned:
As of December 2010:
- Facebook had 515 million users
- MySpace had 185 million
- Twitter had 175 million
- Friendster had 90 million
Only the countries of China and India have a population greater than Facebook. The next eight countries in the top 10 populous countries (the U.S. is 3rd with 310,232,863) are all well below Facebook’s population of users.
Then there’s the rate of growth. Facebook added 100 million users in less than 9 months. It took the U.S. 10 years to add less than 28 million people to its population.
Social networking is now the No. 1 activity on the Internet. It’s changing how we communicate with one another, how we view family, friends, education, politics, work, culture, current events and history. Indeed, even how we process information. And the different generations have responded to its influence differently.
Those of us who first encountered the Internet as adults still tend to view it as a source of information and a convenient means to get things done. Search engines let us quickly and easily look up information. We use the Internet to do online banking and shopping.
Those who grew up with the Internet, use it primarily for leisure:
- Social networking
- Streaming video
- Downloading music
Those who grew up social networking have a different view of privacy than those who didn’t. The latter aren’t as likely to see the appeal of posting personal, perhaps mundane, information on a website like Facebook. They are the ones who comment, “Who really cares what kind of ice cream I’m getting at Cold Stone Creamery?”
But those who grew up sharing such information see it as a fun way to stay connected with friends and a means of self-expression—not unlike the shaggy hair, paisley prints, madras plaids, surfer crosses, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll of the Baby Boomers that so shocked or irritated their parents.
The Generational Gap in Private vs. Public
Emily Naussbum wrote a penetrating article for the New York Magazine on how social networking has changed generational views of privacy. She addresses the “[O]rdinary, endless stream of daily documentation that is built into the life of anyone growing up today. You can see the evidence everywhere, from the rural 15-year-old who records videos for thousands of subscribers to the NYU students texting come-ons from beneath the bar. Even 9-year-olds have their own site, Club Penguin … The change has rippled through pretty much every act of growing up.”
Naussbaum’s interview with some tourists visiting N.Y.C. from Kansas City illustrates this point. She talked to a Dad, his 15-year-old daughter and two of her friends.
The three shiny-haired, Ugg-booted girls tell Naussbaum that they got computers in the third grade, everyone used to have a Xanga (“So seventh grade!”), everyone now has a Facebook, and, yes, they post party pictures and use “away messages.”
In contrast, Dad is baffled when Naussbaum asks if he has a Web page. He can’t think why he’d need one. He doesn’t know how to get into his daughter’s Facebook profile. Asked if he takes pictures when he attends parties, he’s incredulous.
Such contrasts lead to different world views. Warned that posting private information online could make them vulnerable to stalkers or predators, young people respond that’s like warning someone not to move to The Big Apple because they might get mugged.
In her online blog, Monica O’Brien observes with amusement her Baby Boomer Dad’s enthusiastic conversion to Facebook and reconnection with high school classmates. She was equally impressed—5 years earlier.
Daughter and father compare Facebook friends. Dad: 25. Daughter: 850. She explains that too many people found her from her blog and requested to be friends so she stopped trying to keep them separate and accepts nearly every friend request.
Dad raises the stalker concern. Monica tells him the only stalker she’s had was when she was in college working at the St. Louis Arch. Security walked her to and from the train every night until her boyfriend began picking her up. Nobody told her to quit her job.
I can relate to Monica’s view. When we heard the busybodies breathing on our party line conversations, we called them out. If we didn’t hear them hang up, we adjusted our conversation accordingly. We didn’t stop using the phone.
No Generation Has a Lock on the Right World View
Every generation thinks its world view is the correct, right or moral one. It’s not. It’s just their view—shaped by their coming-of-age experiences in the changing world around them.
Baby Boomers believe virtual friends aren’t real friends, forgetting the imaginary, non-digital friends (invisible or stuffed) that many of us talked to at one time in our childhood. We see narcissism and a craving of attention in personal profiles pages where younger people see connectivity and community. What about the hippie communes of the 1960s? Granted, they weren’t Internet-connected, but were no less disdained by the parents of Baby Boomers for their unorthodox notions of community.
Although the older generations wonder why anyone would want to post personal and often mundane information on the Internet, it’s as natural to Gen Y as mailing a Wish You Were Here postcard.
Maybe, as Naussbaum posits, the younger generation has the more realistic view about privacy in the world today. There are surveillance cameras everywhere. Every time you swipe your debit card it’s tracked. Your employer owns your e-mails. Apple can track your travel and present location through your iPhone’s GPS and your cell-phone photos are tagged with dates, times and map locations.
An Axe Doesn’t Cut it When a Scalpel Is Needed
Jim Pasco, the executive director of the National Fraternal Order of Police has been quoted saying, “If you post something on Facebook, it should be something you wouldn’t mind seeing in the newspaper.”
This is a common reaction, particularly from those who still get their news from a newspaper.
How did you find out Bin Laden was dead? I learned from a two-inch, bold headline in my morning paper. Many younger people don’t read print newspapers. They found out from Twitter (which reportedly broke the news before the President), friends texting them or a YouTube video.
For purposes of this article, forget how these different mediums might shape our views of historical events. (I will say that people’s views of current events and history are being dramatically changed by the Internet.) To younger people, Mr. Pasco’s newspaper analogy seems profoundly out-of-date and lacking in an understanding of modern technology and communications. To them, the newspaper analogy is like arguing you should never have sex because an unscrupulous partner might secretly photograph or film and later distribute it. Or you shouldn’t get tested for HIV because someone might find out and disclose that you think you might be infected.
Privately shared information—to people who grew up online—is still private. Younger people blogging their private thoughts or sexting is their generation’s diary and love letters.
If you want your agency’s social media policies to be meaningful and workable, younger officers must be involved in deliberating and developing them.
What will pass legal muster shouldn’t be the starting and ending point for such policies. Cross-generational dialogue should be. For one thing, courts are way behind the kinds of changes we’ve looked at here. Courts address issues only after things have gone awry. They can’t issue advisory opinions or set policy. By definition, courts are not proactive, they’re reactionary.
Also, just because something is legal, doesn’t mean it will be accepted by recruits, officers or the public.
Moreover, the one thing agencies can be sure of is that change in this landscape is constant. It will always be ahead of courts and legislation. Departments will need to monitor trends—which applications, media and software are growing and which are not. This is another reason to have young officers in developing and updating their agencies’ social media policies. They’re creating the trends.
The most important reason to involve and include recruits and young officers is it’s a bridge across the generation gaps to meaningful, workable, dynamic social media policies. Otherwise, the generation gaps will continue to grow and the information highway roadkill won’t be pretty.