Growing up means making mistakes. A child learns from those. Children should be allowed to play and experiment in reasonable freedom to develop a personal identity. Most of us are happy that not every embarrassing detail of our childhood has been recorded. That some friendships, arguments and haircuts are forgotten. That is not necessarily the case for the generation currently growing up. But as a parent you can definitely take steps to protect the privacy of your children.
The earliest beginnings
Many expecting parents share their first echo on social media or on photo platforms. Their enthusiasm is understandable. However, your child has not yet been born and already has a presence on the internet forever, without ever being asked anything. Few people realize that by publicizing they have renounced their rights of the first image of their child. That they have given permission to others to run off with it. (The online publication of pregnancy could lead to a torrent of advertising aimed at prospective and young parents by the way - a torrent that sadly will not shut down if the pregnancy ends tragically.)
The first device that a child gets hold of is often a tablet. You should realize that a child can learn from a tablet, but that a tablet also learns about your child. Devices and platforms like YouTube are designed to manipulate your child. For example, to keep their attention on the screen as long as possible. Your child can also be tempted to make purchases in so called 'free games'. Apple and Google were forced to repay millions of dollars after knowingly tempting children. Facebook has now been sued for the same reason. At what age and to what extent do you want to expose your child to these sort of companies?
Photo: Hal Gatewood
An ad/trackerblocker is an extension (addition) to your browser, which you can install yourself. It blocks third party advertisements, speeds up your internet and makes your browser consume less data. You can also block trackers on all devices, the pieces of software that are being used to track internet usage. You will be monitored less intensively that way. The use of a privacy friendly browser also helps. Check our Bits of Freedom Internetfreedom ToolboxBits of Freedom Internetfreedom Toolbox on how to do this.
More and more devices are connected to the internet nowadays. The thermostat and the Amazon Alexa or Google Home assistants, for example. Many toys are also connected. The Playstation or Nintendo, but also teddy bears that can recognize voices. Dolls that execute simple commands. If the toy is able to contact the internet, the toy can be used to contact your child. It's nice to have toys with new possibilities, but be critical and do diligent research on the capabilities of the device.
Day care and elementary school
Most infants go to day care and after-school care. Questions relating to privacy are being asked there too, partially due to the adoption of the new European privacy regulations (GDPR). Is the day care posting recognizable photos of your children on their site, or are they asking explicit consent? And then there's the elementary school. The internet offers amazing possibilities for education. Knowledge is more accessible than ever. The smartboard replaced the dusty 20th century chalkboard in many school rooms. But an educational institution has to consider the privacy of students when purchasing digital learning tools. Are you as a parent involved in the participation council or a different consultative body? Get the privacy of your children right. Encourage the school to think about it. Point out the ‘Cryptokids: De Baas op het Internet’ teaching package‘Cryptokids: De Baas op het Internet’ teaching package. Because being online is necessary for every form of education, but it also means that children have to learn how to stay afloat as an independent, thinking person in a world full of data gluttons.
Photo: Kaku Nguyen
Is your child in group 8 (6th grade), then you are probably visiting open houses for secondary schools. A school that does not use Gmail, Google Docs or Chromebooks is practically impossible to find nowadays, but it is easy to find out about any privacy awareness. If they are speaking enthusiastically about student tracking systems (‘the digital collar’) like Magister and Somtoday but are replying privacy questions with mumbling, keep on asking questions. You can however imagine that privacy considerations are not a top priority for most parents when picking a school. Certain educations are only given by one institution, and then you have no choice at all. By bringing up privacy, you are signaling to the school that parents think that privacy is important. Every little bit helps.
Free time: the smartphone
We are currently avoiding the discussion at which age a personal smartphone is suitable for children. We are also not giving advice on the agreements you can make on the usage and the transparency of that usage. Information concerning talks on security and privacy, also regarding bullying and sexting, is available on numerous websites. There are a number of settings in the general settings section of a smartphone. You can look at these together with your child before using the device to review the privacy-friendly options. On the importance of a strong password. These are also means by which a child can make itself more resilient to bullying classmates.
As a parent you are, understandably, mostly involved with the costs of using a mobile phone. Sometimes children are being encouraged to use public wireless internet. It is often freely available on the train, in the library, or on the curb at fast food chains. Wi-Fi hotspots are everywhere. Be aware that they are not only convenient, but they also entail risks. Those with ill-intent can sometimes use them to wiretap your connection and intercept passwords. Using your own data bundle is somewhat more expensive, but identity theft can cost a lot more money.
If you want to make children more resilient and conscious of privacy, you can start by giving the right example. Do know that seemingly innocent comments regarding your child leave a digital footprint. A tweet about your child like 'Sleepless night, @nameofyourdaughter is world champion being late' can also be read by the delivery service where she applies for a part-time job. Employers and insurance companies are after all increasingly going too far in investigating the social media profile of candidates.
Photo: Oliur Rahman
In the settings in Snapchat you can restrict who is allowed to contact the user. You can tick 'My friends', disabling strangers from that option. On Instagram any stranger can see all the photos, unless the setting 'Private account' is turned on. You can also simply 'lock' your tweets on Twitter. That way only people with permission can see what is being shared. Read here how to get more privacy on Facebook in four clicks.
‘Do not be afraid, but be critical.’
The right example
A conversation with your child on privacy might seem complicated, but fundamentally the story is quite simple. There is information you can share online, and there is information you should not share online. On yourself, your family and friends, and on other people. But how do you persuade a child that it should be careful with sharing information if you have posted his or her entire youth on Facebook or Instagram? Messages on school results, health problems, hobbies, bullying? If you have shared tens to hundreds of photos every year? We are being stimulated to share everything. A part of our social intercourse does not take place in one-on-one conversations anymore, but on public forums. Irregardless of the pedagogic choices you make, the right example is probably the most important starting point.
We do not want to get involved with parenting, but we think that the same guideline counts for children as for adults: do not be afraid, but be critical, that way you will learn to use the possibilities of a free internet in a manner as safe as possible.
This article was translated from Dutch to English by two volunteers of Bits of Freedom: Alex Leering and Celeste Vervoort. Thanks!