Are You Protecting Your Children’s Privacy Online? 3 Internet Privacy Concerns Parents Should Know About

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We live in an age where everyone, even young children, have an online presence. With the popularity of sites like Facebook, Instagram, and Snapchat, our children have been shared and liked from the day they were born (or even earlier!).

The data we disclose about ourselves and our children on the internet can be used for many purposes , many of which we don’t even know about or fully understand. Some of those purposes may be nefarious.

Before we go into the privacy concerns you should be aware of as a parent, let’s talk about what is legal when it comes to children’s privacy and information.

In 1998, the US Congress passed the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA), which governs the information of children under the age of 13 and how it is collected, used, or disclosed by commercial websites, online services, and apps. Some of they key provisions of COPPA are:

  • Websites cannot collect data from children under age 13 without parental consent.
  • Parents must be able to access their children’s data for review or deletion as requested.
  • A privacy policy must be posted anywhere data is being collected.
  • There are limits on the types of marketing approaches that can be used to target children under age 13.

Despite these protections, the internet is a vast and ever-changing place, so potential dangers are rapidly being created and developed.

Photo by Ludovic Toinel on Unsplash

Creating a Digital Footprint

As previously mentioned, social media has allowed for the creation and sharing of photos and information about our children from a very young age. In fact, as of 2010, 92% of US children had an online presence before they reached 2-years-old. For 34% of US children, an online presence was established for them prenatally through ultrasound images.

This phenomenon is sometimes referred to as “sharenting”.

There are no laws regarding this digital footprint we create for our children (unless you live in France, where parents can actually face jail time for uploading pictures of their kids), so it is up to us to police what gets shared and what doesn’t.

COPPA prevents websites from sharing children’s data without parental consent, but parents can share this data without their children’s consent.

As a 30-something, my own digital history goes back about 15 years, to when I was in high school. Not everything my digital-self produced as a teenager was exactly internet gold, and it can be embarrassing to think about what might be discovered from those early MySpace posts.

Our children will have a history all the way from infancy. That is why it is important to imagine what it might be like for them in their 30s, having their entire life photo-documented online.

So what are the risks? Here are some potential consequences to oversharing on the internet and social media, along with some tips for how you can protect your kids from them:

  • Identity Theft – A name, date of birth, and address can be all that’s required to commit fraud using personal information found online, and many parents may be surprised to learn that this information is more readily available to the public than they think. All a bad guy would need to do is wait until an individual turns 18 and then start opening accounts. Don’t share any of this information online, or if you do, ensure it is not visible to the public. Check the privacy settings on your social media accounts at least twice a year to make sure you are sharing what you want to share.
  • Sexual Predators – It’s terrible to think of, but predators can get a hold of your children’s photos and disseminate them on graphic websites. Again, check your social media privacy settings. Also, do not share photos that show your children undressed.
  • Future Embarrassment – You might think the pictures you post of your kids are adorable, but they may not see it that way when they get older or when they are trying to be taken seriously by future employers. Think about changing the quality and quantity of photos and videos you post. A few great photos from a special occasion, like a birthday party, instead of a picture of every silly moment.
  • Lessons on Consent – As a way to protect your children, you probably teach them about bodily autonomy and consent. If you, as the parent, violate that autonomy, what message does that send? Start having conversations about online presence as soon as your child can understand, and involve them in decisions about what to post. Make them feel like they have a say, and you will help build trust in your relationship.

Not Everyone Follows the Rules

Just because there are laws in place to protect children’s privacy, doesn’t mean everyone is complying. The Federal Trade Commission enforces the law to the best of their ability, but that does not, by any means, guarantee compliance across the board.

If you think that only small, shady looking websites are the ones breaking the law, think again. Google recently reached a settlement with the FTC over violations regarding targeted advertising towards children through it’s subsidiary YouTube.

Has your child ever watched ChuChuTV Nursery Rhymes or other YouTube channels obviously directed at young children? According to COPPA, a website has to have “actual knowledge” that it is collecting data from children to be held accountable. YouTube claims in its Terms of Service that it is not intended for children under 13, but the content of these types of videos clearly demonstrate otherwise. According to complaints filed by privacy advocates,

YouTube’s privacy policy discloses that it collects many types of personal information, including geolocation, unique device identifiers, mobile telephone numbers, and persistent identifiers used to recognize a user over time and across different websites or online services. YouTube collects this information from children under the age of 13, and uses it to target advertisements, without giving notice or obtaining advanced, verifiable parental consent as required by COPPA.

So, YouTube has been collecting your child’s data without your consent and using that data for targeted advertising. Why should this bother you? The reason why there are regulations regarding the way children are advertised to is because of their susceptibility to the deception of ads.

According to a study conducted by the American Academy of Pediatrics, children under the age of 7 are developmentally less likely to be able to tell the difference between an advertisement and the type of content they are trying to watch.

The bottom line here is that even with existing laws, you still need to monitor the websites young children visit and be aware of what information those websites may be collecting from your kids, with or without your consent.

Fun ≠ Safe

One of the easiest ways malicious entities can invade your privacy online is by concealing their actions behind harmless looking content. What looks like a silly game may actually be a way to collect your data. And they can get away with it because they warn you that they are going to do it… in those Privacy Policy statements that you don’t read and click “Accept” without hesitation. Most adults probably wouldn’t understand all the legal-speak in those statements anyways – but if we don’t understand it, our kids certainly won’t.

A recent example comes from FaceApp, an app that went viral last week because users could upload photos of themselves and see what their faces look like manipulated by age or gender (among other things).

Millions of people participated in the #AgeChallenge because it seemed like harmless fun. But when some experts looked into FaceApp’s Terms of Use, they found something concerning:

You grant FaceApp a perpetual, irrevocable, nonexclusive, royalty-free, worldwide, fully-paid, transferable sub-licensable license to use, reproduce, modify, adapt, publish, translate, create derivative works from, distribute, publicly perform and display your User Content and any name, username or likeness provided in connection with your User Content in all media formats and channels now known or later developed, without compensation to you.

Say what now?

By using the app, you agreed to give FaceApp complete license to use your photos. They own whatever you uploaded.

It’s worth mentioning also that FaceApp is a Russian owned corporation.

The company claims that any photos you upload are stored on servers based in the US and that the majority of them are deleted after 48 hours and that they don’t share or sell any data with third parties. Does this mean your picture has now been sold off to the Russian government? Not likely, as The Daily Beast points out, and this type of statement isn’t even unusual. What’s concerning is how easily many of us (myself included before I researched this post), gladly uploaded a photo without really knowing what we were agreeing to.

FaceApp’s policy also states that children under 13 cannot use the app without parental oversight, but how is that enforced? How many children could still access it? How many parents uploaded pictures of their children themselves?

I’m not saying this to incite panic, but these are questions parents should be asking themselves.

FaceApp is not the only example of a website or app with seemingly innocuous intent that could have shady or corrupt purposes. It was one of those silly personality quiz games on Facebook that collected millions of Americans’ data, which was then sold off and used to influence the 2016 election.

The best thing you can do is talk to your kids and let them know that just because something seems innocent and fun online, does not mean it doesn’t have hidden consequences. This can be a good lesson in healthy skepticism and in not always following the crowd.

Privacy gets harder to maintain as more and more of our lives are being organized, operated, and shared on the internet. Our kids are the first generation to have an online identity for their entire lives. Our legal system and our parenting will have to evolve to keep up with the potential dangers they face.

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