In a world where the internet is becoming increasingly invasive, and metadata about us collated by major corporations seems to be the norm, you may already be concerned about privacy. You may be worried about how you might be able to protect yourself and your data not just from hackers and cybercriminals but large organizations, whether they be companies, government bodies, or other groups entirely. Maybe you just don't want people to be able to find you online so easily.
Yet if you're reading this, that's likely not your only or your primary concern. You're worried about these same things, but as they relate to your child instead. And you have reason to be concerned. While children have a greater right to privacy in many spaces, the internet doesn't always discriminate, and cybercriminals simply don't care. You need to start thinking about the privacy of your child online.
In this piece, we will be diving into everything related to your child's online (and in a few cases offline) privacy, and what you can do to help. We are not going to lie to you and tell you it is always going to be an easy task, but these are helpful habits to teach and learn. In some cases, they are absolutely vital to the safety of your loved ones.
The Importance of Privacy in Today's Online World
Everyone is connected to the internet, and you can't go a few minutes without seeing a device connected to it, if not using one. All of these have methods and vectors where you can give up some of your personal information and, as a result, your privacy. Yet why should you care? What does it matter to you or your child?
Here are a few things about privacy today that might be relevant to you:
Data on Your Child is a Commodity
Who would be interested in data about your child? While we will be going more into this later, advertisers and marketers are the first and most common answer. By understanding what children are interested in and how interested they are, they know what topics and products (toys) are popular among them, and what to work on in the future.
We can't get into too much detail on the topic here, as there are full books written about it, but targeted advertising is far more effective than the general advertising methods of the past. Most of the data collected from devices that is not used in the actual functioning of an app, program, or service is for advertising.
Furthermore, this data can be bought in sold in groups to the highest bidder. Often companies won't source the data themselves but rely on social media companies, etc. to collect it for them for use later.
Data Collection Isn't Going to Stop
Given how effective these methods are and how vital they are to social media giants and other major websites staying afloat, they aren't going to stop because you want them to. Barring massive government intervention, big data will continue to try out new methods, even tracking location data and purchase histories, things previously thought private, at least to some degree.
Additionally, cybercriminals and identity thieves often work in organized groups, to collect the most sensitive data and use it for identity theft. Your child is not immune to this.
Microphones and Cameras Everywhere
A more real sense that privacy is both decreasing and vital in today's world is the fact that cameras and microphones are everywhere. If there's a smartphone, there is a high-quality example of each right there.
And while we don't live in a dystopia where we can expect them all to be on at all times, people do use them frequently, and data is collected from them, if after the fact. Facebook might be able to identify your child in the future just by photos uploaded by friends. Apps may frequently request permissions to these aspects of a phone without having any need to do so.
Part of the process will be educating your child about these things and being aware of their common uses.
Educating Your Child
Education about online privacy is the most important thing about the subject and the main idea we hope you take away from this article. You cannot always be there, and your child will eventually grow older and have to make these decisions for themselves about privacy and many other things. What you can do is prepare them and show them (in an appropriate way) what the dangers are.
About Websites, Apps, and Programs
Websites, apps, and programs are the lifeblood of the internet, and your child will be using them constantly. Yet not all of them are created equal, and you not only need to concern yourself with objectionable content found on some sites. You also need to worry about those sites where they might be asked for sensitive information, sometimes innocently, and sometimes with malicious intent.
There are also sites in general that could become problems. We recommend that you tackle multiple issues at once and talk to your children about all types of threats.
You don't need to necessarily say they're "adults only" or for grown-ups, which might just increase their curiosity and allure.
Instead, we recommend that you explain why these sites exist and that there is nothing of interest there. Depending on your child, age, and potential example site you want to use, you can walk them through an example or two to destroy the mystery and make them happy to look at much safer fare. After a bit of practice, they'll recognize the things they shouldn't touch on their own, and why there's nothing there for them.
About Other People
While the term "stranger danger" might be a bit overblown in some circles, there are people online who would like to groom and/or harm your child, and it's your job to educate them about these people and how to interact with others online. Here are a few ways to start:
· If your child is talking to friends from school online, you probably don't have too much to fear. However, it might be possible that someone could be posing as a friend to get their information. If your child says someone online is acting differently than usual, this could be the case and warrants your attention.
· You should teach your child that they should never listen to someone online telling them to keep things from you.
· The context of where they might be talking to someone doesn't necessarily matter. Much like how they could pose as your child's friend, an adult can easily pose as a child to try and make yours more comfortable providing personal details.
· In general, the safest rule is that they should never provide personal information to someone online besides basic likes and dislikes and information that truly doesn't matter.
The type of people outside of your child's age group that would actually reach out to talk to them online (as opposed to say on the phone) are certainly not people with good intentions, especially people outside of the family and close friend group (and even then you can't be certain). There may be exceptions, but they're exceptions to a very common rule.
Don't Forget to Talk About Your Information
Children may not only give up their own information when online but also give up yours, especially if you don't teach them that your privacy matters too. Don't wait for an incident to occur when you teach them this lesson and remind them that you deserve your privacy as well, for their sake just as much as yours.
In most cases, anything your child uses won't require your information, or will just require your permission. You may also need to create an account, but ideally, you should be able to keep that separate to what is accessible to your child.
However, if you're worried, you can take matters a bit more into your own hands, and don't provide your child with access to your personal and financial information in the first place.
Remembering and Teaching Basic Cybersecurity
While we won't go over every single thing you should do to ensure basic cybersecurity (you can find more in-depth information on that elsewhere), we would like to note and make sure you're doing the following and teaching your child to do the same:
· Install security software, use it regularly, and make sure it is useful and updated. Do not use a free option other than Windows Defender, as it will likely take information from your computer. Malware can spy on your child's actions online, among causing other types of havoc.
· Talk to your child about common types of scams. This can be difficult to teach, but necessary. You know what to look for and don't even think about ignoring them, but don't assume this on the part of your child. Remind them that almost nothing is free, there might be a hidden agenda, and to not download everything they see online.
· Use good password practices and teach your child to do the same. If remembering different passwords is difficult, then a password manager tool might be helpful.
· Be aware of the network you are on and avoid using public networks (more on this later). Instruct your child to do the same.
· Try to stick only to sites that use HTTPS.
Don't Forget the Smartphone
Not enough parents think about smartphones when it comes to online privacy. And although this trend is thankfully changing given that a great deal of cyberbullying and other problems happen on smartphones, the smartphone is often where the most information can be found.
What Can A Smartphone Know About Your Child?
If you're not too worried about a smartphone, we hope this will change your mind. Here are some of the most common apps used on smartphones and what they have as their default settings:
· Effectively all of the information flowing through social media apps and websites can be accessed via the device. This means photos, videos, messages (to a varying degree based on the device used), and more.
· In the event of its theft, all of the information stored on the smartphone. This can include everything on accounts that can be accessed without logging in another time from the phone.
· Every query, search, or voice request they put into the phone. There are so many of these, often put in without thought, that someone with access could easily learn a great deal about your child.
· Apps and mobile websites track just as much information as their browser and desktop (or laptop) counterparts, if not more, given the permissions commonly granted.
What to Do About Smartphone Privacy Concerns
However, you simply can't just forbid a child a smartphone and expect them to live a normal life, especially during teenage and pre-teen years. Eventually, it is a practical communication tool that will be expected. However, that doesn't mean that you and your child can't take precautions such as the following:
· Take care with search engine usage and the information input into the phone.
· Make sure a strong PIN or another type of effective lock screen is used at all times.
· Practice good cybersecurity and scam avoidance behaviors on the smartphone.
· Only allow relevant permissions for apps and mobile sites.
· For messaging, if possible, try to use encrypted messaging services.
Every Bit of Data Is Used
Everything you do online provides one tech giant or another with some data they will use to shape their services in the future. The very act of clicking a link or putting in a URL to get to this page almost certainly means that they will note this in the future to either adjust search engine traffic or better understand user patterns of behavior.
Similarly, every purchase you or your child make is logged somewhere, whether you are identified in it or not. And the facts remain the same for your child. There is no piece of data too small that some group isn't interested in it, at least in aggregate. Your job as a parent is to learn more and know what matters and what doesn't, which we're here to help you with.
Identifying Data Versus Anonymous Data
Whether you hate the very idea of it or accept it, every tech company is collecting data on all of our usage habits, including the habits of our children. While this can and should be cause for some concern, a lot of it comes down to how that data is collected, how it is used, and other factors.
For example, the data that Google might collect about a search inquiry your child makes probably doesn't matter much in the long run. They take in billions of searches regularly, and they don't care about the usage habits of an individual, even if it is your child.
However, specific data collected by a website that includes things such as your child's address, names, and likes and dislikes may be used against them, and their connections may also be noted. This can easily lead to an invasion of their privacy.
There are endless examples for either side, so after some research, you will need to properly balance caution and reason so your child can use the internet without living in fear, while also not putting themselves or their privacy at risk.
Privacy Settings and Options
This is a rather broad topic because of the vast number of apps, websites, services, plugins, search engines, etc. that people use. Still, we did want to bring up the fact that there are many privacy settings available, and they are somewhat unique to each platform, browser, social media site, and service.
Eventually, you will want to teach your child to control these things for their own benefit without your help. However, if they're young or inexperienced with computers, it might be wise to check the sites, games, and other things they use online the most and see if there are privacy and security settings that can be activated. Not only will you be able to protect them, but you'll also gain a better understanding of the media they're consuming and what could be influencing their development.
Opting Out of What You Can
Just because everything is available to you and your child seems to be automatically signed up for every feature, that doesn't mean you need to stick with them or give them information just because they ask for it aggressively. If emails are getting intrusive in your child's life, opt-out of them. Cancel permissions for apps if they seem invasive or suspicious. Quit or delete accounts that ask for too much. Neither you nor your child has to commit to anything.
Ad-Blockers and Similar Tools
As you've experienced, to your frustration, ads are far more aggressive than those you see in the newspaper and even on TV. While some websites may not be happy about it, it might be best to install an ad-blocking program, and then perhaps whitelist the sites you know don't use suspicious or invasive ads that lead to sites and services uninterested in your child's privacy.
If you don't want to have anyone or any organization know what you or your child are doing online, then a virtual private network (VPN) is the tool to use. Effectively, how it works is it creates an encrypted connection between your child's (or your) device and a secure offsite server. If anyone is snooping on the network, all they'll see is that you're using a VPN (if they see anything at all.)
Alternatively, some VPNs allow you to directly set up the service with your modem, meaning that connecting each time isn't as much of a chore (at least in some cases). However, a VPN can often reduce your download speed or ping rate, so it might not be viable at all times. We recommend using a paid option, as they will be more likely to take your child's privacy seriously.
Using Search Engines
Your child will naturally use search engines during their schoolwork, looking for fun things to do, and general time spent online. And they will use them extremely often. For that reason, even though search engines aren't necessarily the most egregious offender in terms of potential danger to your child's privacy (despite the massive amount of data that they collect), you would benefit by speaking to your child about them.
A quick note about incognito mode: it only prevents search traffic details from being stored on your end. Your ISP and the search engine itself will still see searches from your IP address, even if it doesn't necessarily have a name to go with it.
Search Engines Can Help You Too
Have you ever Googled yourself, just to see what came up? Well, there's nothing stopping you from doing that with your child's name as well, especially if they have a unique name. Using this, you can see if anyone is talking about your child online, how they might appear to others, and how "searchable" they are.
You might also want to do this for yourself as well. If someone wants to know the location or address of your child, all they really need to do is find you or another family member. The weakest link, in this case, is what's most important.
WiFi Connections and Vulnerable Networks
Even if you don't want people to get your data and personal information, that doesn't mean hackers and cybercriminals won't try their best to get at it. And perhaps the most common and widespread threat you and your child will encounter in day-to-day life will be the WiFi network, public ones in particular.
Broadcasting Things You Didn't Even Consider
How much personal information do you think flows through your smartphone or laptop at any given moment? How many apps are open that would allow someone to get to know your life's most intimate details with just a bit of thinking? If you're operating on a public network unprotected, as many children will do without instruction, a hacker with even the most basic technical know-how and gear could learn nearly every piece of information sent over the network, potentially including passwords and private info. Have your child use a VPN.
Protecting Your Home Network
While this is less likely, hackers can break into your home WiFi. And while it's less likely, it's also more dangerous. You're not going to do your home finances on a public network, and your child won't be doing nearly as much either. Most of the communication and information they input into a device will be from their home network's relative safety. It's up to you to make sure it stays safe and private.
To protect your home network, we would recommend you do the following:
· The first thing is to password protect your network, ideally with a strong password that is changed regularly (realistically at least every few months). While this may inconvenience frequent guests, the added security is worth it.
· Make sure that you switch the username and password for your modems and routers away from the factory default. Too often, families do not do this, and hackers in the general area can try out commonly used options to effectively get two steps closer to getting into your network.
· If you want to be absolutely safe about things and you only use one computer in the house anyhow, consider just using a wired connection. That being said, given the use of WiFi by smartphones and many household devices, this isn't a terribly practical option.
Your Child and Social Media
Even for people who don't use it very much or don't have many accounts, social media is a regular part of everyday life now, and that means that there are additional concerns you need to note. People (including your child) are or will spend a lot of time on it. It's best to know as much as you can.
Child-Friendly Social Media Options
So you shouldn't give your eight-year-old a Twitter, that much should probably be obvious to anyone. But the rest of social media can be a much murkier swamp, especially as it seems as though it's always changing and trying to find ways to root itself into lives and become more invasive every update.
Yet, what options are there?
· You may want to create a few profiles for them when they're young and keep them for later, just so no one else tries to impersonate your children, and the accounts are set up (and in your control).
· There are social networks designed for kids, but the problem with them is that a social media network requires a large installation base to become truly effective. This is not always the case, and they never really take off or become popular.
· Most, if not all, social media networks don't even technically allow people under 13 to join their platforms, mainly for legal reasons, but this is not without practical purposes too. It is impossible to control what's on these platforms.
· Ultimately, it is your child's peers that will shape their social media experience. Try to keep them away from negative influences.
As an additional note regarding social media and media sharing sites, you should also know that many children turn to YouTube to create and post videos about themselves, often as a form of healthy self-expression (if they aren't just hoping to get famous). While this can be good if done carefully, the videos created should be private, especially if the goal is to just do something fun with friends. YouTube simply cannot moderate everything properly, and comments can get dangerous and invasive, especially if your child is too excited to think critically.
Using Personal Information Online
While you can easily avoid voluntarily giving out personal details on the standard blog or website you might read or be interested in, it isn't always possible to have you and your child avoid providing some information online. There are, however, ways around this and best practices you can use.
Using Fake Accounts and Information
While in many cases this won't work, if the website is asking for personal information or things such as an email when it would have no reason or right to, you can and should use a fake or throwaway profile. You can create an extra identity for your child to use if they want to do things online, but you don't want them to give out information.
Using Your Accounts and Information
You should not do this with younger children, as they might not understand what costs you money and what doesn't. If you don't pay attention, you could become like one of the many parents surprised by a five-digit bill relating to an online game, with the child not knowing (or not caring) about what they were doing to their family's bank account. Sometimes it's ok and even better for your child to go without.
As far as older children and teenagers, it becomes a matter of trust and understanding, best left to your judgment.
Some Tasks Are Left to You
We encourage educating your children and setting good guidelines to protect their (and by effect yours) privacy and information. And in a best-case scenario, that's the main goal and result of your efforts, so they can be self-sufficient regarding these issues and make the right decisions down the line.
However, your child cannot pay the bills or control the settings on your accounts, and they probably shouldn't be entirely in control of the WiFi settings. We'll say it again: you cannot ignore your own personal privacy concerns if you want to protect your child's privacy. The two are linked, and the privacy of your family is the privacy of your child. You will be the one who has to ultimately set down the rules and family internet practices, however much feedback you want to take from your children.
We also don't recommend you take a reactionary stance to everything listed above. If you wait for an emergency to happen, it will be too late. Do what you can now and take a day or two to prepare.
Remember That You Can't Control Everything
Yet while you consider all of the points listed in this article, you have a life outside of your privacy, and so does your child. You cannot monitor what they do 24/7, try as you might, and you can't control every device they use without eventual negative feedback. Your child is likely going to want to have a real presence online, and in the long run, there is little you can do about it except prepare them for the world in this regard.
You should protect them from threats online, but do you think a teenager is going to benefit from having minimal internet access if they are otherwise intelligent and well-adjusted?
As with all things, a common-sense approach is required, and we recommend not sticking to the same rules for years on end. Instead, adjust things when it feels appropriate and focus on the most significant threats and the things that worry you the most. Use your better judgment, trust your child as you see fit, and remember to let go eventually.
Privacy is a tricky topic, especially when children are involved. It is also a changing one, so you should keep up to date with the latest online developments, how privacy policies generally change, and what apps can and cannot do without your permission. However, the efforts will be worth it when you can rest easier knowing that an unknown entity will use your child's data against them, either now or in the long run.