If you were one of the 50 million Facebook users whose personal information got hacked this past fall, the topic of privacy just might be on your mind. But think about this. While you’re posting photos of your kids on Facebook, those very same kids are probably using one of the many apps they use and love—Snapchat, Instagram, YouTube and more—to unwittingly divulge loads of their own personal information on sites that may not be secure.
Thousands of the apps and online services young people use routinely collect their personal data for advertising purposes or to sell to third parties without their, or their parents’, knowledge or consent. It’s not just the apps they use for entertainment either. Bradley Shear, an attorney working in Washington D.C. and founder of Digital Armour, told me: “Schools are using free apps and the personal data these apps collect is being sold, right under a parent’s nose.”
Do kids care about the personal information they give away?
I used to wonder if kids knew or cared about the information they so easily give away, especially given that they are particularly vulnerable to identity theft. According to the 2018 Child Identity Fraud Study, more than one million children were victims of identity fraud in 2018. Their relatively clean slates are irresistible to digital thieves.
This is a big deal. And, yes, they do care (once you teach them that it is a big deal, that is).
As a teacher of “digital literacy,” I make sure my students understand the language of online privacy—cookies, third party, user content, log file information, and more. This, I figure, is the very least we can do to prepare the next generation of online users to be savvier than their parents. They must know that the cost of the awesome “free” apps and services they use is their personal information.
My students are required to read the long and tedious privacy policies of the apps they use too. You’d think they’d complain bitterly about this assignment. After all, privacy policies are full of legalese that make even adults nod off. But, surprisingly, students dive in with zeal, thrilled when they discover how much personal information Snapchat snaps up—and sometimes even keeps. They feel empowered by this knowledge, occasionally even deciding that certain apps and services “just aren’t worth it.”
Last year, NBC’s Today Show sent a crew to interview one of my classes. Students talked all about privacy policies and terms of agreement they’d been studying and how some “freaked them out.” This knowledge, of course, isn’t going to stop most kids from using these apps or services altogether, but it will make them think twice about what they share. Knowledge, after all, is power.
So what can parents do?
Follow these easy steps to help your children protect their online privacy.
- Know About COPPA. The Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act protects kids’ personal information on websites and online services—including apps— that are directed to children under 13. COPPA requires those sites and services to notify parents and get their approval before they collect, use, or disclose a child’s personal information. However, if your nine-year old tells Instagram she’s 13 (the age requirement to use the app), she won’t be protected by this law.
- Teach Your Kids the Language of Online Privacy. Discover, together, the meaning of the most common terms found in privacy policies and terms of agreement: personal information, cookies, third party, license, user content, location information, log file information, monetization. Do a Google search if you don’t know what they mean.
- Get To Know Your Settings. Nearly every social media app offers a suite of privacy settings. Be sure to use them. For example, on Instagram simply navigate to “Settings” and then scroll down to “Privacy and Security.” From there select “Account Privacy” and elect to make your account private. On Snapchat, simply select the cog wheel and scroll down to the “Who Can…” section. Set “Contact Me” and “View My Story” to “My Friends” (this can also be set to a custom list of friends). Confused? Ask your children to demonstrate how they do this.
- Don’t Share Your Location. These days nearly every app automatically tracks a user’s location. It’s a good idea for children to disable this feature on the apps they use. Plus, advise them not to geo-tag their posts with their location either. Tell them: You don’t want to announce the fact that your family is vacationing in Hawaii while your house sits empty at home.
- Use Parental Controls If You Must. Although the best way to keep a child’s online privacy safe is by teaching them how to manage this themselves, it doesn’t hurt to have their backs by using parental controls, especially when they are young. Today Android, iOS, and most web browsers offer built-in features that allow parents to monitor their children’s online activities and there are a multitude of third-party apps that do this too. But please don’t use any of these as a substitute for education and conversation!