Safeguarding Your Children’s Privacy

Facebook’s recent announcement that it plans to launch an Instagram for Kids under the age of 13 has put children’s privacy in the headlines and in the forefront of parents’ minds. 

In 2017, Facebook – who owns Instagram –  launched Messenger Kids for children between the ages of 6 and 12. At that time a group of more than 95 children’s health advocates sent a letter to Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg. The group urged the CEO to discontinue the Messenger Kids platform, citing research that “excessive use of digital devices and social media is harmful to children and teens, making it very likely this new app will undermine children’s healthy development.”  While studies have shown that the use of digital devices and social media can have a negative impact on a child’s development, the growing concern today is protecting children from online predators and other privacy risks.   In 2019 a bug was discovered in Messenger Kids that enabled children to join groups with strangers, despite Facebook’s claims that the product had strict privacy controls. The Messenger Kids platform remains active today.

In response to the planned release of Instagram for Kids, more than 40 state attorneys general sent a letter to Zuckerberg compelling him to scrap the preteen social media app.  “Facebook has historically failed to protect the welfare of children on its platforms,” the lawmakers wrote.  As we publish this article, it remains to be seen if the tech conglomerate will move forward with yet another platform designed explicitly for children that puts their safety and privacy at risk. 

Targeting Children – There’s an App for That Too!

Social media sites aren’t the only ones targeting young kids and putting children’s privacy at risk.  In April, lawmakers called for the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) to investigate Google for marketing apps in its Play Store as part of Google’s Designed for Family program. The program pushes apps that the tech firm claims are compliant with the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA) – the law that regulates user data collection from sites with users who are under 13 years old.  However, recent research conducted by child advocacy nonprofits that examined more than 150 of the program’s apps found that almost half of them share user data with outside parties. “The FTC must use its full authority to protect the interests of children,” said the lawmakers in their letter, urging the FTC to investigate whether the Google Play Store “has engaged in unfair and deceptive practices that mislead parents and harm kids.”

Take Proactive Steps to Protect Your Children’s Privacy

With today’s kids increasingly using digital devices and connecting beyond their network of local friends to unknown online communities, there are steps you can (and should) take to help safeguard your children’s privacy and security –   regardless of their age.

  1. If you haven’t already, start building digital skills. The tween years are critical to preparing your child to eventually spend more time on social platforms for kids over 13. In addition to privacy, consider other important topics such as digital literacy, cyberbullying, online scams, and other online risks.
  2. Keep an open dialogue with your children. Communicate with your kids about their social media and app use. Make sure they know your expectations for their online behavior and the limits you set for them that they must abide by.
  3. Educate them on the risks. Discussing the risks the internet presents can help your kids understand why your rules are important and make it easier for them to spot warning signs. Remind them that not everyone is who they say they are online, and to never meet an internet friend in real life without extreme caution and parental supervision. Make sure they understand that links and downloads can lead them to phishing scams, viruses, or malware.
  4. Set Guidelines for Social Media Use. Have a conversation with your kids about what they’re allowed to post, the accounts they follow, and how often they’ll be allowed to use social media. Frankly discuss what kinds of things they should look out for online, including bullying, predatory behavior, and inappropriate content.
  5. Discuss personal privacy and monitor your child’s privacy settings regularly. One of the biggest risks to kids online is privacy and how social networks collect and use kids’ data. It’s never too early to start talking about privacy and ways to reduce your family’s digital footprint. Some platforms make profiles public by default, so it’s best to check out their privacy customization options. In particular:
    • Location privacy: Apps can share the geographic location of your child, and you probably want to keep that feature disabled.
    • Private profile: The less information a stranger can view publicly about your children, the better.  Use privacy settings to ensure the platforms don’t showcase your kid’s real name, age, birthday, phone number, or other information that can be used to target them. Keep tabs on what they’re posting as well. Children should be advised not to publicly post private details such as your home address to invite people to a birthday party. Also, talk to them about not accepting friend requests from people they don’t know!
  6. Install content filters: It’s all too easy for children to stumble across sexually explicit or otherwise inappropriate content online. Set their profiles to block at least a portion of the age-inappropriate social media out there.
  7. Monitor app activity and permissions. When using apps, make sure your children are aware that accepting permission requests – to access their phone’s camera or microphone, for example, or to turn on location services – makes their device vulnerable. They should be taught to think about whether the permissions sought by an app are necessary, i.e., why would a puzzle game need to access their camera or location? And they should be instructed to close apps when they finish using them. Apps that continue to run in the background when not in use can continuously track your child’s location and usage.

It’s More Essential Than Ever to Safeguard Your Children’s Privacy

With school and many extracurricular events – and even in-person playtime with their pals – significantly reduced this past year, kids are spending increasingly more time indoors and online. Predators and other nefarious actors leverage social platforms, games, and video-sharing apps to target children with harmful or age-inappropriate content. They may also send private messages via these channels that can trick unwitting youngsters into giving up their personal information.  As a parent, it’s your job to guide and protect your kids as they navigate the ever-evolving (and risky!) online landscape to ensure they become responsible and safe digital citizens.

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