Matt Richtel's recent NYT article on teenagers who share their Facebook passwords as a show of affection has raised alarms with parents and educators who worry about the potential for bullying and abuse.
But as danah boyd points out the practice of password-sharing didn't start with kids: it started with parents, who required their kids to share their passwords with them. Young kids have to share their passwords because they lose them, and older kids are made to share their passwords because their parents want to snoop on them. Basically, you can't tell kids that they must never, ever share their passwords and require them to share their passwords.
There are different ways that parents address the password issue, but they almost always build on the narrative of trust. (Tangent: My favorite strategy is when parents ask children to put passwords into a piggy bank that must be broken for the paper with the password to be retrieved. Such parents often explain that they don’t want to access their teens’ accounts, but they want to have the ability to do so “in case of emergency.” A piggy bank allows a social contract to take a physical form.)
When teens share their passwords with friends or significant others, they regularly employ the language of trust, as Richtel noted in his story. Teens are drawing on experiences they’ve had in the home and shifting them into their peer groups in order to understand how their relationships make sense in a broader context. This shouldn’t be surprising to anyone because this is all-too-common for teen practices. Household norms shape peer norms.
There’s another thread here that’s important. Think back to the days in which you had a locker. If you were anything like me and my friends, you gave out your locker combination to your friends and significant others. There were varied reasons for doing so. You wanted your friends to pick up a book for you when you left early because you were sick. You were involved in a club or team where locker decorating was common. You were hoping that your significant other would leave something special for you.
How Parents Normalized Teen Password Sharing
(Image: Swordfish, a Creative Commons Attribution Share-Alike (2.0) image from ideonexus's photostream)
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