As a proud mom, I want to post every milestone and adorable moment in my daughter's life on social media, but as a privacy lawyer, I take a moment's pause to consider the consequences of my actions. What we share online has far-reaching implications. Although social media has made connecting with friends and family easier, the platforms have expanded so rapidly that we haven't had time to wrap our heads around the privacy implications.
As technology flourishes, the opportunities and ease with which we can interact with the internet are multiplying at a staggering rate. Digital interactions are not limited to your smartphone—connected devices like interactive toys, wearables, and home assistants like Alexa and Google Home collect and store a lot of personal information about their users. While social media and the "internet of Things" undoubtedly enrich our lives, as a parent and online privacy lawyer, I can't ignore the cost that comes with using such devices.
At the Children's Advertising Review Unit (CARU), I work with advertisers and online operators to ensure they're following both the law and the CARU Guidelines, which are designed in part to protect the privacy of children online. Here are my tips to help keep your family safe online.
Know Your Rights
Twenty years ago, the Children's Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA) was created to give parents control over what information is collected from their kids online. COPPA requires websites and online services to obtain consent from parents before collecting personal information from kids younger than 13. Under the law, parents have the right to review their child's information, delete it and refuse to permit further collection. Check out the FTC's website for parents.
Legal requirements aside, as a parent, you have the right to be involved when your children are online. Assert yourself and engage. Require that connected devices be used in family areas of the home so you can monitor usage. Be aware of who your child is communicating with and what information is being shared and collected. Try not to use your tablet device as a babysitter, which often results in children clicking down a rabbit hole into questionable content. Be your child's internet filter to avoid inappropriate or even unintended results (like searching seemingly harmless terms like "adult" or "mature").
Educate your child about the importance of safeguarding their personal information and encourage them to come to you if a questionable situation occurs. Teach them how to report abuse or inappropriate behavior online. Here are some easy things to do to keep your kids safer.
Learn Best Practices for Kids on Connected Devices
Don't allow your children on apps and websites that by their own terms are not for them—like social media. Privacy protections on social media platforms are not meant to protect children under 13—you are. Set complicated passwords on devices and avoid unwanted online purchases by educating kids about spending limits or only connecting pre-paid credit cards to apps.
However, savvy kids are experts at avoiding age screens and parental controls. Kids bypass Apple's screen time restrictions for YouTube by downloading alternative apps that allow them to watch the videos. Similarly, kids are manipulating the time on their devices and rolling back the clock to a time they are allowed to use the device. Don't let your child outsmart you. Set house rules and don't be afraid to take devices away after hours.
You should also be aware that kids often have multiple social media accounts; one for the benefit of their parents, often referred to as a 'finsta,' an abbreviation for fake Instagram, and another secret account where they post edgier content parents would not approve of. Some teens also have burner social media accounts, accounts that are not connected to their name or identity, that they use to see or share things their parents would not approve of. So even if you can't see the racy content, drive home the consequences of posting inappropriate content online.
Follow Best Practices for Parents Online
Respect your child's privacy: When you share your child's photo or story, you are making a choice on their behalf without their consent. Build trust with your child by ensuring you are respectful of and mindful of what you share about them.
Ask friends and family to limit posting photos of your child: If someone with a public profile is posting photos and/or tagging you, your own private account means nothing.
Monitor their digital footprint: Companies are collecting data on your child from the second you post a photo of their ultrasound. This information can then be used to compile a portfolio that can be used for marketing purposes.
Stop tagging your location: It may sound a bit alarmist but you don't need to alert people as to where they can find your child at that exact moment. If you want to document a location, wait until after you have left.
Use hashtags with caution: You may think that tags like #nakedbaby are humorous, but labels like this may make it easy for ill-intentioned predators to find specific images.
Prevent identity fraud: Thanks to a new federal law, you can freeze your child's credit files for free. While it doesn't make theft impossible, it makes it much more difficult to use your child's credit for nefarious purposes. Since most of us don't monitor our child's credit, this is a good idea. To freeze your child's credit, contact the three major credit bureaus, Equifax, Experian, and TransUnion, and request instructions. You'll then need to submit required documentation since this credit freeze cannot be set up online.
Set a good example: Exercise healthy screen habits by limiting usage during meal times and after a certain hour. Check out the Family Online Safety Institute's Digital Parenting Guide for more tips.
Always Read the Fine Print
I may be the only person who actually reads privacy policies but it's the easiest (though admittedly painful) way to find out what information a company is collecting. The document should list who is collecting information, what is being collected, how that information is being used and stored, who has access to that data and what your parental rights are.
Look for apps and sites that are members of an FTC-approved Safe Harbor like CARU's COPPA Safe Harbor program. If you find a CARU seal on a website, you can rest assure that its privacy practices comply with the letter of the law.
It's still important to remember that your role as a parent is crucial to maintain your child's safety online so keep up the good work!
Katie Goldstein is a leading privacy and advertising expert in the children’s industry. Katie is responsible for collaborating with companies to ensure compliance with CARU’s Guidelines and has an extensive background in the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA). You can connect with Katie and the Children's Advertising Review Unit on Twitter, @KidsPrivacyKate, and @CARUAdReview.