A young waitress posts on Facebook about a lousy customer and loses her job. A recent high school good graduate ventures off to college and begins getting calls from collection agencies about debts incurred at age 13. An irate dad chews out a Target manager for sending his 16-year-old diaper coupons, only to discover that she is, in fact, pregnant, and Target's data analysts knew before he did.
As our kids develop digital identities earlier and earlier, and assume the consequences that come along with them. Do we want their online choices to affect their ability to get into college? To get their first credit card? To get health insurance? It is the responsibility of the adults in their lives to see that that information doesn't adversely affect their futures.
We as adults make willing, if not completely informed, choices on a daily basis to give up some of our privacy to gain some measure of convenience. We use credit cards instead of cash. Our browsers serve up online ads for the products we like or have been searching for. Our map apps use our current location to show us the closest restaurant when we are hungry.
As parents raising the first generation of digital natives, it is important that we not extend our own apathy towards privacy to that generation. We need to be more knowledgeable and less apathetic about the privacy choices we make for our children and encourage them to engage in their own privacy protection efforts.
Apathy is not an option
If someone under the age of 18 commits a crime, they can have their criminal records expunged when they reach adulthood, but we have no expectation that their digital records will do the same. Major offenses of childhood can't affect our kids' future employability, but their lousy choices on Facebook --or the actions of an identity thief who is using their personal information-- can keep them from getting into college or from getting the loans to pay for it. Even seemingly innocent choices, like using geolocation services on cell phones, shopping online, or searching controversial topics for a school report, can lead to the creation of a digital persona that may differ from the person our children wish to present to the adult world.
What can we as parents do? As with most big parenting issues, education and communication are key. Most parents are aware that they should be talking to their children about the dangers inherent in posting inappropriate pictures online, or of meeting up with strangers they've met online. These are great places to start, but the issues run deeper than these.
Here are some suggestions for those looking to get more serious about protecting their children's digital persona.
- Let them know that social media privacy goes beyond making good choices about who to friend or what photo to post. Remind them that advertisers, employers, credit agencies, and law enforcement all have access to their data, and that logging in to other websites using social media accounts allows those sites to access their information- and that of their friends.
- Have them turn off location tracking on their devices. While we parents need to know where our kids are, the rest of the world probably doesn't.
- Understand browser tracking, and educate your kids to control who sees them as they search the web. Teach them to change browser settings to eliminate third-party cookies and turn on the "Do Not Track" setting. Know, though, that many websites ignore "Do Not Track" requests and you may need to use a tracker-blocking plug-in to completely eliminate the problem.
- Kids love free wi-fi. So do identity thieves. Warn your kids that their information is vulnerable when using public networks. Consider teaching them to use a VPN (Virtual Private Network) when accessing public networks to keep their info safe
- Lastly, set a good example. Get more serious about protecting your own privacy so that your kids will follow suit.