Vitamin P: Why Privacy is Good for You (And Good for Society, Too)

By Alexandria Chisholm and Sarah Hartman-Caverly

Example of a wellness wheel.Each of us has a wellness routine – habits we adopt to maintain physical health and a broader sense of well-being. Perhaps you are familiar with the wellness wheel, a framework for visualizing various dimensions of wellness, such as physical, emotional, spiritual, intellectual, social, financial, professional, and environmental.

Have you ever thought about privacy in the context of wellness?

When we do think about privacy, we often associate it with keeping information about us secret and protected. Privacy may prevent unwanted consequences, such as identity and credit fraud, online bullying, or professional embarrassment.

But privacy is also good for you. Having time and space to be free from outside interference sustains your sense of individual identity. Being alone with your thoughts allows you to seek new information, experiment with new ideas, and form new beliefs in accordance with your own conscience. Having physical space away from prying eyes also allows you to perform activities unobserved and without inhibition or fear of judgement.  Privacy cultivates creativity, too, and is part of the process of exercising intellectual property rights like copyright or Creative Commons licensing.

Privacy is also about having some say in how much access other people have to you, to ensure that the right people know the right things about you at the right time. This enables us to participate in a range of different relationships, and fulfill a variety of social roles. For example, think about your best friend, significant other, and a close family member – these three people will know largely overlapping, and yet distinct, bodies of information about you. Protecting personal information, then, is really a proxy for protecting these different facets of your sense of self.  Exercising the choice as to what you share, when, and with whom is the foundation of privacy and intimacy.

In its broadest sense, privacy also allows us to gather together. It might seem counter-intuitive at first, but many parts of society, including families, civic organizations, political parties, social clubs, faith-based communities, business entities, and even sports teams, exist in part because they are able to distinguish between members and non-members. This associational privacy is intrinsic to our social fabric, as is our ability to carve out spaces, and parts of ourselves, that are beyond the reach of government, corporations, and the general public.

If privacy is so important for wellness, what does that mean for our relationship to technology – especially now, during the pandemic, when technology plays such a central role in keeping us social while social distancing?

Digital wellness wheel activity from the bloggers’ Digital Wellness workshop.Digital wellness is an approach that seeks to align wellness goals and habits with respect to technology use. Digital wellness acknowledges that technology can contribute to both personal and social well being, while also maintaining awareness of the ways in which technology can create wellness imbalances or make us vulnerable to harm, whether overt or hidden.

Reimagine your wellness wheel as a digital wellness wheel – is it well-balanced and rolling along smoothly, or is it in need of an alignment adjustment? How is technology helping, or hindering, the various dimensions of your wellness?  Are there aspects of technology use you have not previously evaluated, as our online lives grow and expand?

Digital wellness is about exercising conscientious connectivity. Digital wellness involves making informed, conscious choices about when to connect, and when to disconnect; about when to share, and when to exercise restraint; about when technology is beneficial, and when it may cause more harm than good.

To strike that balance, digital wellness – and wellness in general – includes a regular healthy dose of privacy.

Alexandria Chisholm and Sarah Hartman-Caverly are collaborators on privacy literacy research, the Digital Shred Privacy Literacy Toolkit and the Penn State Berks Privacy Workshop Series, including the Privacy, Digital Leadership, Digital Shred (with Alexandrea Glenn), and Digital Wellness workshops. To learn more about digital wellness, they suggest How to Break Up With Your Phone by Catherine Price, How to Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy by Jenny Odell, Digital Minimalism: On Living Better With Less Technology by Cal Newport, Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other by Sherry Turkle, the Digital Detox card deck by Goali Saedi Bocci, and The Big Activity Book for Digital Detox by Jordan Reid and Erin Williams. They tweet about privacy literacy as @Digital_Shred.

Alex ChisholmAlexandria Chisholm is an Assistant Librarian at Penn State Berks and liaison to the campus’ first-year experience program and science division. She has seven years of reference and instruction experience at both private and public baccalaureate- and doctoral-degree granting institutions. Her research focuses on information literacy, instructional design, and privacy literacy.

Sarah Hartman CaverlySarah Hartman-Caverly is an Assistant Librarian at Penn State Berks and liaison to the Engineering, Business and Computing division. She has seven years of reference and instruction experience at public associate- and baccalaureate-degree granting institutions, preceded by six years of electronic resources and library systems administration in small liberal arts and community college settings. Her research examines the compatibility of human and machine autonomy from the perspective of intellectual freedom, with focuses on privacy, learning analytics, censorship, and information warfare.