Parents' iPads, smartphones and computers can be irresistible to their little ones, who often love to play games and watch videos on the devices. But apps and websites often collect information about even the youngest users, who might not realize the extent to which they're being tracked.
Privacy experts say apps and websites collect email addresses, photos and even search history, all of which can be used to target advertising toward kids or for more nefarious purposes. Julia Angwin, author of the new book, "Dragnet Nation: A Quest for Privacy, Security and Freedom in a World of Relentless Surveillance," writes that she fears her kids' future public identities could be shaped by information they share online today and used to perpetrate financial fraud or other crimes against them. That's why she encourages her children to use fake names on their online accounts. That way, their friends know who they are, but her kids avoid creating a permanent digital trail.
As the Pew Research Internet Project reported in 2013, many teens are making the opposite choice and sharing more about their lives with friends and even strangers. Pew found 91 percent of teens post photos of themselves online, 71 percent share their school name, 71 percent share their hometown and more than half share their email address. In addition, most share their birth date, relationship status and interests.
The good news is there are many steps parents can take to protect their children from oversharing online, starting with these six strategies:
1. Set some ground rules.
Casey Oppenheim, co-founder of Disconnect, which makes privacy software, including the app Disconnect Kids, says that as a parent, he takes certain precautions to protect his children, who are ages 6 and 8. First, he only allows them to go online and use the Internet when they are in the same room as at least one of their parents. "They can't surf when I'm not there," he says. To enforce that rule, he password-protects all devices and computers to prevent his children from logging on without him or his wife knowing about it.
Second, because Oppenheim knows his children will eventually use the Internet when he's not around to supervise, he tries to teach them about the importance of privacy and how companies make money from personal information collected online. "It's really important that kids develop an early understanding about the difference between private communications and public communications online," he adds. "Social media, and Facebook in particular, does a really good job of making potentially public forums seem private."
2. Follow their trails.
When children are using websites and browsing the Internet, Alan Friel, chair of the media and technology licensing practice at the law firm Edwards Wildman, says parents need to supervise them closely and check up on what kind of information is being collected, how it's being used and the appropriateness of the content. While certain regulation, such as the Children's Online Privacy Protection Act, is designed to protect minors, Friel emphasizes that nothing can replace parental supervision. Resources like wiredsafety.org can help parents protect their kids and develop safe habits.
3. Talk about photos.
The proliferation of photo text messages and popular apps that allow for easy photo sharing means preteens and teens often share a lot of themselves, and sometimes too much, online. Young girls and boys post photos of themselves to Instagram, often with identifying characteristics like a school name, and sometimes find themselves victims of mean remarks and bullying as a result. In addition to making sure children's Facebook accounts are private (as well as parents' accounts, if parents are posting photos of children), parents might want to consider keeping photos off public websites altogether and asking friends and family to do the same. Another option is to follow Angwin's example, and use fake names.
4. Check up on Facebook friends.
Criminals and fraudsters sometimes collect information about their potential victims by "friending" them on social media sites like Facebook; being "friends" allows them to collect more information about their targets' lives. That's why anyone with a Facebook account should check their friends' list (and the friends' list of their children) regularly, to make sure they are not friends with strangers. Also, privacy experts urge people to refrain from posting vacation photos and other shots to social media sites that reveal their current whereabouts.
5. Use a kid-friendly app.
Oppenheim's Disconnect Kids app, which costs $1.99 in the app store, prevents websites and apps from tracking users. This helps stop companies from tracking kids and then targeting advertisements at them. The app runs constantly to prevent that kind of information-sharing.
Kidoz, an app available for Android, prevents exposure to inappropriate content online by turning the device to a "kid-safe" mode. "All the content is preapproved, so it's like a huge walled garden," says Kidoz CEO Gai Havkin.
6. Grant fewer permissions.
Olivier Amar, CEO and co-founder of MyPermissions, says apps and websites often collect personal information about you that you might not even be aware of. MyPermissions, which helps people review and consciously decide what they want to share, makes it easier to revoke permissions that were granted earlier or by children. A game app might ask to know your location or for access to your calendar, Amar points out. "If a Tetris app is asking for access to your calendar and work history, there's a problem. Something's not right. But that happens all the time," he says, adding that users often don't know how the developers are using the information they collect.
When MyPermissions is downloaded as a browser plugin or app, it makes it easier for parents to review the permissions their children are granting and to disconnect their accounts if necessary. "I'm aware of what he's doing at all times," Amar says of his son, who uses a Chrome browser with MyPermissions installed when he's on the computer.
The bottom line: Online or in the real world, it's up to parents to protect their kids.
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