Internet Safety Month: How to protect your child's privacy online

Internet Safety Month: How to protect your child’s privacy online

June marks the beginning of summer. It is also National Internet Safety Month.

This is the perfect time to remind vacationers that while it is essential to check that everything you need is packed and ready for a trip, it is equally vital for the family to take steps in securing their devices and their online footprint. We’re talking about managing online privacy and reputation—for you and especially for your children.

So to celebrate Internet Safety Month, we’ll be pushing out a two-part series tackling the concepts mentioned above. In part 1, we’ll be talking about online privacy geared toward kids and teens. So parents and guardians, whip out that pen and paper—or a note-taking app, if you like—and start taking notes.

It is essential we protect our children’s privacy online

Parents, you know this. When they were young, we trained our kids not to talk to strangers—unless they’re the police or someone on the line handling emergencies, such as a 911 dispatch officer. We tell them not to accept anything from anyone they don’t know or are unfamiliar with. We remind them not to wander off too far from where you can see them. We sternly order them not to go to dark alleyways. We encourage them to go to places accompanied by a person you both trust.

It’s natural for parents and guardians to keep their child safe and as far away from physical harm as possible. That hasn’t changed, and is equally true for the digital world—especially when our kids have coexisting physical and digital lives.

What kids (and some adults) probably don’t realize is that there are real-world consequences for the things they do online. This something we should keep reminding our kids about as they grow up. Truth be told: It’s relatively easy to forget what’s at stake if we can get what we want quickly and with relative ease. And more often than not, kids won’t think twice about giving personal info away.

If we don’t take our child’s online privacy seriously, they may end up in serious digital trouble, or worse: end up getting emotionally or physically harmed.

When it comes to criminals going after children’s personal details, identity theft is something that parents should worry about. The sites you navigate to may be child-friendly, but that doesn’t mean they take extra care of your child’s info (the same way other companies handle data of parents and other adults).

The security of these sites may or may not be terrible, but unfortunately, they lean mostly toward the former. Case in point, the VTech breach of 2015. Fortunately, the anonymous hacker who exposed flaws in the toy maker’s websites is motivated to stop anyone from taking advantage of parents and children’s data. The outcome of the story might have been different if data were found in the hands of criminals.

Sharing too much information online, such as their current whereabouts and what they’re doing, is also dangerous to children, as this may invite stalkers and spies. Your child could also lose out on opportunities if they share compromising images of themselves publicly. Such photos could cost them a college admission, a new job, a grant or benefit claim eligibility, and other public and private services your child may want to apply for in the future. Furthermore, this could escalate to bullying, labeling, and humiliation.

What you can tell your kids to protect their privacy online

While most parents focus on personal privacy when it comes to online matters, remember that there is also what we call consumer or customer privacy. Your kids are already using and consuming services and software programs available online, whether they’re labeled free for use or not. This means that they also need to exercise the right to protect this type of privacy, too. Customer privacy centers on data companies collect about their users, regardless of age, whenever users interact with their sites. Taking the steps we prescribe below can help address the security of your child’s personal and consumer privacy:

“There is information you can share and cannot share online about you, your friends, and other people around you.” Guide your kids on which information, videos, photos, or posts from others to share or not share. Your home address, the name of the school they attend, your landline number (if you, dear parent, still have one in the house), and email address are examples of data they should never share publicly online. On the other hand, safe selfies, cat pictures, and funny GIFs are harmless to share. The family recipe that has been passed on from generations before? Well, you may want to ask granny about that first.

Read: Users with landlines are more vulnerable to scams

“Timing is everything.” Yes, that age-old adage that has been uttered numerous times applies here, too. If and when your teen cannot avoid sharing information about where they are and what they’re doing, the very least they can do is delay posting about, say, being on family holiday at the Maldives for a fortnight. This way, once you’re all back safe at home, not only is a potential burglary prompted by a social media post avoided, but your teen can still relive their experiences with friends online. In this way, it’s almost like extending the vacation fun a little bit longer.

“Check your social media settings or possible privacy policy changes you might suddenly be defaulted to.” Businesses that market to children are, by law, required to have a privacy policy included in their terms of service. Informing their young users is also compliant with Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA) standards. However, due to activities that may keep the child busy and make them miss said notifications in time, it is good practice to make time to review online account settings on a regular basis.

“Familiarize yourself with laws that protect your online privacy.” Of course, parents should do this, first and foremost, before they can pass on what they know to their kids. Keep your language simple and understandable. Acquainting your kids with laws can also give them insights on what information, as consumers, they can share or withhold from companies that ask data from them. You can start with COPPA. Introduce them to online privacy laws governed by your home state, as well.

“I’ll walk you through the privacy settings of your social media accounts.” When you think your child is at the right age and ready to have a social media account, set one up together and spend as much time as you can walking them through and helping them understand the various privacy settings on offer for that particular platform. This may also be an excellent opportunity to offer them additional tips, if, for example, they receive friend requests from someone outside their circle.

“Read up on news about the platforms you use.” This is to foster awareness about what can potentially happen online if they’re not careful with their information.

Privacy, monitoring, and apps: A “tough love” story

Parents of young children often monitor their kids closely, minding every website they visit or every video game they play with others online. But for some parents of tween and teens, continuing to do this may seem optional now. After all, they’re growing up to be more independent and getting savvier with their online habits. They know when to stay away from something, right? Some of these parents may even stop keeping tabs on their kids completely for fear of being labeled “creepy” and “weird.” Worse, they’d be called out for “violating their child’s privacy.”

It’s a parent or caretaker’s ethical, moral, and legal obligation to keep their children safe. And whether kids like it or not, this extends to their digital lives. So before a new smartphone or tablet is handed over, three things should have already been established: first, the parent or caretaker must assess that the child is mentally and emotionally mature enough to own and take responsibility for a device; second, there is open communication between parent and child about online activities; and, third, there is an agreement about expectations for how the device will be used, including amount of time and which types of sites will be visited.

Once the device is handed over, require that your child come to you immediately if she encounters something that seems fishy online. On the flip side, it’s important to establish trust between caretaker and child. It would be wise for parents to always ask their child’s permission first before looking through their devices. And when it comes to using monitoring apps, they should also inform their child before installing.

Children must realize that while they are dependents, they don’t get to keep their online (or other) activities 100 percent confidential. Depending on the circumstances, for example, if the parent’s instincts tell them something is off or their child might be in danger, sometimes privacy must be ignored in favor of keeping the child out of trouble.

Children must also realize that just because they get checked up on every now and then doesn’t mean their parents don’t trust them. More often than not, it’s the people they’re interacting with online that parents don’t trust. They can’t meet these people in person and determine their character for themselves. Plus, allowing your kid to go on the Internet is not the same as allowing your kid to hang out at the mall for a couple hours. It is definitely not always a safe place—especially if the proper precautions aren’t adhered to. Children need extra care and proper guidance when it comes to navigating the Internet.

Let’s stop and talk a while

When it comes to managing a child’s digital life, both adult and child must work together toward the common goal of acceptable online privacy and general security. While there is technology available that can aid parents when it comes to looking after their children’s well-being online, these should only be treated as supplemental and not a replacement to a relationship grounded in good communication. Both parties must be open to one another about what’s troubling them and what makes them uncomfortable, without judgment. Doing otherwise may result in children closing their doors and choosing to talk to others instead of their parents when they have problems online. Parents must recognize this, too, and come up with better ways to communicate with their child.

Raising digital natives isn’t easy now, and will probably be even more difficult in the future. Soon, they’ll be wearing our shoes and raising children of their own—a second or third generation of natives. We can only guess what life will be like then. But until then, it is crucial for parents to consider normalizing the concept of online privacy protection for their own good, and for generations to come.

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Jovi Umawing

Knows a bit about everything and a lot about several somethings. Writes about those somethings, usually in long-form.