If your child is old enough to have a smartphone, then there’s a good chance you didn’t even have access to the Internet when you were a kid. You never had to think about online privacy growing up, and neither did your parents.
But today it’s imperative to take steps to protect your children’s privacy online. There are two main reasons:
First, children only need to be 13 years old in order to use most online services. And yet many privacy policies are so complicated that even adults have trouble understanding them. It is often unclear how tech companies will use the data they collect. Under these circumstances, a child cannot properly give informed consent.
The second reason has to do with their reputation, personal safety, and mental health. Many apps targeted at teenagers, like Instagram and Snapchat, encourage them to share personal information over the Internet with friends or publicly, including pictures and their location. It’s easy to see how that kind of information could be used for harassment. There is also a growing body of research suggesting that social media creates feelings of inadequacy, isolation, anxiety, and depression. And the information they share can live on the Internet for decades, potentially harming their reputation far into the future.
What’s a concerned parent to do? There are three main things you can do to protect your children’s privacy online. Educate them about why online privacy matters, update the privacy and security settings in the services they use, and guide them toward online services that respect users’ privacy.
Educating your children about online privacy
Even for adults, it’s sometimes difficult to understand why online privacy matters. For teenagers, privacy can seem even more inconsequential, especially as social media sites have worked to erode privacy as a societal norm. But privacy is a human right and a prerequisite to democracy. For children, privacy is uniquely important because it provides for a safe environment to make mistakes and test out new ideas.
Unfortunately, today’s children don’t have that luxury. Many of the online services they use are creating a permanent, public record of their formative years. Rules that are supposed to limit companies’ ability to target children are not very stringent and are difficult to enforce (a kid can easily lie about their age, for example).
It’s important to talk with your children about why privacy is something they should value. Encourage them to think twice about the things they post publicly online. Set limits if necessary. Understand the implications of the privacy policies and the terms and conditions of the services they use so that you can let your children what will happen with their personal information and the risks involved. And help them to understand how their data can be used to try to influence them, whether through product advertising or political campaigning.
Update your children’s account settings
Most websites and services will give you some measure of control over the kind of information they collect and store about you. The first thing you should do when your child signs up for a new service is to navigate to the privacy and security settings. There, you can opt in or out of data collection (such as location tracking and web cookies) and visibility (such as allowing only approved contacts to view their profile).
You should also update your children’s security settings, including enabling two-factor authentication. And review some of the best practices for securing online data, such as using strong passwords and being alert to phishing attacks. Knowing how to defend against hackers is an important part of keeping your personal information private.
In your child’s Instagram settings, for example, you can set the account to private, manage blocked accounts, turn off activity status, turn on two-factor authentication, and more. In Twitter, you can set the account to “protected,” limit how others can find the account, and choose who can send direct messages, among other controls. These recommendations also apply to your children’s devices themselves, which can collect data (such as their location or contacts) and feed them to the apps your children use.
Use privacy-oriented services
Not all online services are so hungry for personal data. A number of tech companies are catering to the demand for privacy and developing encrypted and anonymous tools. It’s now possible to browse and search the web without being tracked by advertisers. By choosing a trustworthy VPN, you can encrypt your entire Internet connection to prevent unauthorized access to your web activity. Thanks to end-to-end encryption, you can send and receive chats and emails without disclosing the contents of your messages to the service provider.
We created ProtonMail because we were concerned about the future of online privacy, and our service reflects a commitment to gathering as little information about our users as possible. For example, because all emails are encrypted, we do not have the ability to read messages. We also do not ask for personal information when users sign up for an account. Because of these built-in privacy protections, we recommend using ProtonMail instead of Gmail for your child’s first email account.
Whether we like it or not, children spend a meaningful amount of their lives online. There are of course many benefits to this, but the current business model of the Internet also creates many risks. Parents have a crucial obligation to understand online privacy issues and be proactive to keep their children safe.