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How To Protect Your Family’s Online Privacy

As the COVID-19 pandemic continues to push children’s social and educational lives online, digital privacy is more critical than ever.

Corporations and social media companies are eager to monitor your children’s online behavior, not only to market to them, but for a whole host of purposes.

Many parents don’t realize the extent to which their children’s actions are influenced by marketing and artificial intelligence, and just how much of their personal information is exposed. Experts agree that in order for children and teens to develop safe digital habits, it’s essential for parents to educate themselves about the reality of data collection and to share that information with their children before they download any apps, sign up for social media accounts, or log on for virtual school.

Though digital privacy might seem like a challenging topic to tackle with a young child who just wants to stream the latest episode of Daniel Tiger or a teen who’s obsessed with TikTok, there are steps that parents can take to help kids protect themselves.

KNOWLEDGE IS POWER

The first step for parents who want to protect their children’s privacy online is to understand how data collection typically works. “Most online privacy threats are due to the collection of ‘persistent identifiers,’” says Usable Security & Privacy Group Research Director Serge Egleman, PhD. Like a license plate, persistent identifiers are a string of numbers and letters assigned to you and your device, and they allow companies and other entities to track you across the internet.

“By themselves, these persistent identifiers may appear innocuous,” says Egleman, “but when collected over time alongside other information about your activities, they allow others to learn information about your habits, interests, and demographics.”

“There’s so much to learn about how our personal information is collected, shared, and even exploited online,” adds Livingstone. “Parents should talk to their kids about how the internet collects data they may not mean to share, how that data is used by companies, and what steps they can take to protect themselves.” Livingstone suggests that parents take advantage of resources like “My Data And Privacy Online,” which features information, videos, games, and tools to help families learn about digital privacy in an engaging and entertaining way.

Further, parents should be aware of their kids’ online privacy rights. According to the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act, or COPPA, site operators must: clearly delineate their data collection practices; obtain consent from parents before collecting data from children under 13; offer parents access to their children’s data and the opportunity to opt-out of data collection; and more. Policymakers are actively working to strengthen COPPA and also provide new digital protections for teens. For example, legislators have proposed an update to the act that would provide protections for children over age 12; prohibit operators from using techniques such as autoplay to keep children online; change the knowledge standard so that more online content companies and applications would be covered by COPPA. You can read more about COPPA here.

Finally, make a habit of regularly talking to your kids about their experiences online. Find out what sites they’re visiting, who they’re interacting with, and how they’re protecting themselves. The more comfortable they are discussing their digital lives with you, the more likely they’ll be to open up when they encounter something dangerous or problematic.

READ THE FINE PRINT–THEN DISCUSS IT

It may not be possible to keep children off of social media entirely these days, so rather than fight it, parents should learn to safely coexist with it. “Read the full description of an app before allowing your kids to download it, and be sure to check the age rating,” says Center for Cyber Safety and Education Marketing and Communications Specialist Beatriz Parres.

“Pay close attention to how the app will use your children’s information, and understand that many apps today include in-app chatting and video streaming, which could lead to inappropriate conversations with friends or complete strangers.”

It’s critical that parents understand the risks they’re accepting when they allow their children to download an app, and for families to discuss those dangers in advance.

Claire Quinn, Vice President of Compliance at PRIVO, underscores just how important it is to engage with the privacy policies that accompany any app or website. “Children need to understand that their personal information is collected by almost every app or website they visit, even if it doesn’t appear obvious,” she says.

“It only takes a moment to check a privacy policy and see what information is collected from your child and how it’s used. If it’s not clear and transparent and you aren’t comfortable, try to get more information or find a different experience for your child.”

VOTE FOR PRIVACY

“In today’s ‘Big Data’ digital world, which is operated through pervasive commercial online surveillance and empowered by Artificial Intelligence, there’s little a parent can really do to protect the privacy of young people,” says Center for Digital Democracy Executive Director Jeff Chester, MSW.

“What’s needed is a new federal law that strengthens what we currently have on the books, the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act.” Though there’s growing bipartisan support for stronger privacy laws protecting children and teens, Chester says it’s up to parents and other concerned adults to push their representatives in Congress to take action.

Angela Campbell, Chairman of the Board of the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood, agrees, noting the value of coordinated action.

“I hope that parents will join organizations that seek to hold institutions such as schools and corporations accountable for protecting children,” she says, “to enforce existing child protection laws, and to update the laws to address new challenges.”

The CCFC website offers many resources for parents including a Screens in Schools Action Kit that addresses student privacy.

Parents should be attentive to changes in policy at both the federal level and the hyperlocal level. In particular, they should be aware of how their school district protects student privacy, especially as COVID-19 forces much of the education system online. In “Student Privacy and the Law in the Internet Age,” authors Leah Plunkett, Urs Gasser, and Sandra Cortesi note that the influx of virtual learning is straining schools’ “pre-digital” privacy frameworks. The best solution, they write, is a blended one, which draws from “technology-based, market-based, and human-centered privacy protection and empowerment mechanisms and seeks to bolster legal safeguards.” These changes won’t happen on their own, though, which means that parents need to take an active and engaged role on behalf of their kids.

SHOW THEM HOW IT’S DONE

Kids are more observant than parents sometimes realize, so it’s crucial for adults to practice the kind of privacy precautions they preach. Go online with your kids and demonstrate safe ways of browsing the web, using search engines, and logging in to accounts. Stacey Barell Steinberg, Master Legal Skills Professor at the Gator TeamChild Juvenile Law Clinic, recommends obtaining clear permission before sharing photos of anyone else online, which will help teach kids to respect the value of consent.

Set clear guidelines regarding what children should and shouldn’t click on, and let them see the ways in which advertisers and internet service providers track their activity. When kids download new apps like TikTok or Facebook, help them select the strongest privacy settings so that they have more control over who sees their information; and for apps that have the potential to track a child’s location, make sure location sharing is turned off.

WHEN IN DOUBT, REPORT

Make a habit of regularly talking to your kids about their experiences online. Find out what sites they’re visiting, who they’re interacting with, and how they’re protecting themselves. The more comfortable they are discussing their digital lives with you, the more likely they’ll be to open up when they encounter something dangerous or problematic.

If your child does suffer a privacy violation, it might not feel like there’s much you can do. However, the only way to prevent it from happening to another family is to report the incident, whether to school officials, other parents or to the relevant technology platform. For the lattermost approach, consider using the below resources:

BOLSTER YOUR DEFENSES

Even sophisticated adults get fooled by phishing attacks–a type of data theft that involves official-looking emails or websites that prompt you to click a link or enter personal information– so it’s little surprise that kids are vulnerable to these schemes.

If you receive a phishing email, show it to your child and explain the signs that helped you identify it as dangerous. Common examples include incorrect logos, misspelled words, and URLs, or sender addresses that don’t match the claimed source. Encourage your child to approach their own inbox with a careful eye and to ask for a second opinion before they click any links or download attachments.

There are a variety of tools available to help families keep their data safe from hacking. Programs that block malware and spam can prevent many privacy problems before they start, and parental controls can keep your children from browsing their way into trouble. Parents should also familiarize themselves with privacy options in their browser settings and consider downloading a plug-in that prevents the acceptance of cookies. It is also important to establish a secure, password-protected WiFi network in your home, and to instruct kids to connect only to known networks. For extra protection, families might also consider using a virtual private network, or VPN.

Most of us have dozens of accounts, ranging from Amazon to Zillow; and if you have the same password for every site, you may be particularly vulnerable to a security breach. To protect yourself, consider using a password manager, which generates a random password for each site, thus reducing the likelihood of more than one account being compromised. It’s also a good idea to enable two-factor authentication on sites and apps for which it’s available. Families that use digital assistants, such as Alexa or Google Home, should make sure to turn off the device’s microphone when it is not in use. Finally, hardware and software manufacturers release frequent updates for their products in response to new security threats, so be sure to keep everything up to date, and back your data up on external hard drives regularly for safekeeping.

It might feel like you need a Ph.D. in data science to understand what’s happening to your personal information when you go online, but following basic guidelines about what you share and how you share it, and encouraging your kids to do the same, can go a long way towards protecting your privacy and safety on the internet.

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