Parents Share How They Protect Their Kids Online

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Advice for anyone trying to figure out how to balance the perils of the digital world with its benefits.

Earlier this week, I asked parents to share their approach to protecting the privacy of their children as they begin to use devices with Internet access and social networks. The inquiry was inspired by an Aspen Ideas Festival talk where Julia Angwin and Manoush Zomorodi revealed how their reporting on privacy changed their parenting.

The parents who’ve replied so far are in agreement that the task is difficult.

Our first correspondent is a married woman in her mid-40's with a 12-year-old child. She lives in Irvine, California. She recently created a technology contract with her child. She writes:

My 12-year-old doesn't yet have a Facebook account, and doesn't remember how to use her Instagram account. I've showed her Snapchat, but her friends don't use it, and she hasn't pushed for it. (She was understanding when I told her I'd deleted it because the filters were so racist.) I expect her upcoming 7th-grade year to involve a lot of change in what has up to now been very limited use of social media. She just this year got a smartphone, several years after many in her upper-middle-class-neighborhood public school did. She has a cheap tablet that she uses to watch Cartoon Network and Youtube. She watches hours of Youtube with little supervision, mostly young adults who are passionate about animation or crafting, and she texts with friends. So my level of awareness about what she does in digital spaces is fairly low - I have no idea who most of the you-tubers are who she watches. We do talk about them, and she knows we can access her browserhistory, for now.

We did have a conversation this year after one of my husband's periodic browser-history checks turned up some moderately adult content (YouTube animations illustrating funny-in-retrospect sexual experiences, like getting caught by a parent), but I'm okay with her using the internet to look around a bit. We have talked for a while now about how the internet can get intimacy wrong, and these conversations are an important part of the general ongoing conversations about intimacy, sex, contraception, and consent.

My job as a librarian does involve a slightly higher than average level of involvement with online privacy issues, but that hasn't translated to at-home chats about higher-level information security. We're still more focused on issues around communication, and how the online setting can make it even harder to make mature, empathetic decisions that it is normally, especially for teens whose brains are still developing. So her concept of personal information is evolving, and I think it's going to be challenging to navigate that at the very same time she's navigating the complicated personal-growth time of the early teen years.

I would characterize my attitude towards dealing with the online world in parenting as resentful but resigned. I'm not scared of the internet, like I don't worry about rando sex offenders. Instead, I feel like the companies and governments that are collecting dossiers of information about individuals can't be trusted to get things right, and I feel like I need to teach my kid to deal with that, and that's a drag. We're trading so much for cute cat videos and easy access to coffee filters and hand cream.

She really likes those cute cat videos, though.

James has worked for more than 20 years in the IT industry and has nine children ranging in age from eighteen to three years old. “I'm probably in the minority in that I'm definitely not ‘out-teched’ by our kids, despite years of trying to get them interested in what goes on under the hood,” he writes. “My wife and I are one of the last cohorts to remember, fully, the time prior to the Internet and so it's much easier for us to end-run the whole thing by simply not participating. Suggesting the same to our kids or their peers is akin to asking them to give up one eye and both feet.”

Their advice distills down to a few first principles:

1. If you are not paying for the app, website, or service, you are not the customer. You are the product, and the way that they're making all their money.

2. There is no privacy online. Doesn't matter how clever you think you are with a nickname or how careful you are with your pictures and comments. Say the wrong thing at the wrong time and you will be unmasked, publicly, for the world to gawk at.

3. Don't say anything online you wouldn't own in person, or want read back to you by us over dinner.

As to our awareness - one rule we have for the few that have taken some steps into social media (Facebook and Instagram for the most part) - is that they stay connected with us so we can see what's going on. We're aware of at least one finsta; the child (who is 16) is also aware that we're aware.

Using tools borne from the professional experience I mentioned above, internet traffic is monitored regularly (and filtered). I pull up the dashboard, explain how it all works, show what I'm able to see - and not see. So far, these lessons seem to have take hold, especially as the kids get older and see the consequences in the news, whether it's doxing, texting scandals, or cautionary tales of students (or professionals) getting called out for their online activities and losing scholarships (or jobs) as a result of them.

Our next correspondent is a mother of two boys, eight and ten, and the Data Privacy Consultant for the California Department of Education. In her work, she has seen “both the power of data to tell compelling stories and power of data to wreak havoc.”

She explains:

When used for good, data can ensure personalized instruction / interventions for kids who are struggling, food for kids who are hungry, and more. When used for ill, data can be inconvenient (e.g., useless to answer important questions), annoying (e.g., telemarketers), and terrifying (e.g., identity theft). In constantly-connected, perpetually-hacked digital spaces, collection of any data comes with risks. As such, one must constantly be asking: (1) Is collecting/sharing these data legal and necessary to answer important questions? (2) Do the expected benefits outweigh the inherent risks? and (3) Is every conceivable, plausible measure being taken to minimize data collection, protect data assets, manage/utilize data to maximize benefit?

But awareness of those perils does not cause her to keep her kids offline:

My approach to screen time mirrors my approach to life in general. I don’t believe in living in a bubble, avoiding uncomfortable truths, pretending that I can control things that I cannot. But I do believe in being reasonable and thoughtful, staying informed and sharing information with others, striving each day to learn and do better. I believe in being cautious without being alarmist…in managing and minimizing risks without suffocating benefits. When it comes to my kids and any topic—including but certainly not limited to screen time—I hope I can imbue them with both the confidence to explore and the knowledge/skills to ask questions/seek help when they find they’ve wandered too far. In both the physical and the digital world, parenting is a perpetual lesson in letting go, a daily affirmation that control is an illusion.

I recently heard an analogy that I think makes a lot of sense. The analogy is this: We don’t teach our kids to be water safe by showing them a video, pretending water doesn’t exist, or refusing to let them get in the pool. We teach them to be water safe by suiting up, jumping in the pool with them, and helping them learn the skills that will minimize their risk of drowning. Carrying this analogy into the online space, my personal stance is that—whether we like it—our kids are in the pool. Technology is everywhere. As such, it’s up to us to get in there with them and guide them through mistakes and dangers so that someday…even when we’re not around to pull them out of the water…they can save themselves with smart decisions and well-honed skills. I’m a big fan of Web sites like Common Sense MediaFERPA SherpaOn Guard OnlineUS Department of Education’s Protecting Student Privacy, and Soul Behind That Screen.

Here are the rules in her house:

(1) No screen time is permitted before my hubs and I wake up in the morning. If the boys rise before us, they need to find other activities (e.g., reading, Legos) to fill their time.

(2) My hubs and I are the holders of the passwords. If the boys want online access, we’re the gatekeepers. The boys understand that at any moment, Mom and Dad can and will check their history to see what they’ve been up to.

(3) Any abuse of screen time privileges will result in immediate revocation of said privileges. We have a very small house and Mama’s got very good ears. If a Minecraft or basketball YouTube video veers into inappropriate language or content, the boys are responsible to shut it down…IMMEDIATELY. If Mom or Dad have to come in to shut it down, the screen is going OFF for a good, long time.

(4)  When playing games with potential to connect with others, they are required to:

a.       Never connect with anyone they don’t know

b. Never share personal information

c.       Only use online IDs that are nonsensical and won’t reveal anything about who they are, how old they are, where they live, etc.

d. Only connect with friends whose identities have been verified by me or their dad (e.g., through a text to other parents verifying that the user name my kiddos want to connect with is affiliated with the kiddo we think it is)

e.       Tell my hubs or I immediately if anyone is pressuring them to share information

(5) Screen time ends at least 30 minutes before bed.

(6) We watch together. Especially when watching shows that aren’t necessarily targeted to their demographic, either my hubs and I watch ahead of time to make sure everything is copacetic before giving approval and/or we watch together so that we can shut things down or answer questions as appropriate. One example is Gilmore Girls. This is one of my favorite shows and I’ve been binge watching it with the boys. It’s sparked a lot of important conversations about coming of age. It has been a great tool for us to bond and talk about important topics. If they ask to watch or play something that I don’t think they’re ready for, I’ll give them the respect of watching at least a portion/researching so that I can cite specific reasons (language, sex, violence, etc.) that I think they should wait or avoid consuming the content altogether. Especially as they grow older, I won’t be around all the time to hover. I want them to be analytic, critical thinkers who make thoughtful decisions. As such, I try to let them experience what it’s like to ask, debate, research, consider the input of others, and draw conclusions. I try to avoid too many “No! Because I said so’s.”

(7) Family time, exercise, and chores are greater than screen time. Those who live in the house connect in the house, help in the house, behave in healthy ways in the house. The second the screen gets in the way of responsibilities to one another and ourselves, it’s time to go cold turkey for a bit and remember that we are NOT addicts fiending for a drug but humans who have the capacity to enjoy things in moderation.

Veronica is the parent of a 3-year-old, and while she has thought deeply about the ways she will try to protect her digital privacy she feels that regulatory changes are what’s ultimately needed:

The production and collection of my child's digital traces is really beyond my control. For instance, although I asked her pre-school not to share photos of her on Facebook, other parents do, and this leads to the fact that the Facebook's DeepFace technology has already stored her facial recognition data. Sometimes I ask parents to remove the pictures, but social media content is deeply interconnected with highly emotional and personal relationships, with the need to share experiences and give meaning to them, and sometimes - as a parent - it is simply not possible to 'opt out'.

Yet social media are just one dimension of the datafication of children, and the impossibility to opt out. Most of my daugthers' data is collected and stored by a plurality of agents, from her preschool digital records to her health records (both stored on outsourced platforms), from social media to cloud systems. I have little control of how her data is collected, stored, shared and exploited.

As a parent I will of course talk to her about digital privacy, and what should and should not be posted on social media. I will probably use the technique used by one parent in London: everytime the daugther wanted to download an app on her phone she would need to study the terms and conditions… However, I believe that the issue is far more complex than simply developing ways to teach our children how to protect their privacy. As parents,  we should not only be talking about digital privacy and how we can instruct our children to protect it, but rather about 'data justice'. What we need is to campaign for more regulation and transparency.

Alex writes:

This was a topic my wife and I discussed at length during her pregnancy.  Our daughter is now 8months old. From the second she was born she was old enough for us to be concerned about her presence on the internet.  We haven't decides on rules for when she is older, but from the start we agreed and had a strict policy required for us, family, and friends: her face would NOT be used in any social media posts. Our concerns ranged from privacy policies on instagram and facebook, to who controls the rights to those photos once posted. We impose pretty harsh penalties for not abiding by our rules, mostly a length of time where you do not get access to our child or their photos as distributed by us.

Being 31 and growing up in the ancient times (Before Social Media), I know that had my parents plastered my image on the internet for all to see, I would have held it against them well into my adulthood. This is a simple matter of respect and trust for your child. I want her to make the decisions about her online footprint and understand the consequences of what happens if you are not thoughtful about your internet presence in our current world.

I won’t make that choice for her.

If you’ve taken a different approach than these correspondents write to share your approach.