Real-World Reasons Parents Should Care About Kids and Online Privacy

Neglecting to protect your kid's privacy can have serious consequences. By Caroline Knorr
Real-World Reasons Parents Should Care About Kids and Online Privacy

If you don't want to have the bejesus scared out of you, don't talk to an expert on kids' online privacy. If you knew what was really out there -- online predators, identity thieves, data miners -- you'd lock up the internet and throw away the key.

The truth is, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. The internet is so woven into our lives, we need to be aware of the worst-case scenarios that can strike when we're unprepared. Below are a few of those scary things that can and do happen. But with some eyes and ears to the ground, they are totally preventable.

Your kid could be spied on. Smart toys including My Friend Cayla, Hello Barbie, and CloudPets are designed to learn and grow with your kid. Cool, right? Unfortunately, many of these toys have privacy problems. As the 2015 data breach of Vtech's InnoTab Max uncovered, hackers specifically target kids because they offer clean credit histories and unused Social Security numbers that they can use for identity theft. These toys also collect a lot of information about your kid, and they aren't always clear about when they do it and how they use it.

  • Protect yourself. Make sure you buy a toy that has a good privacy policy that you understand. Only provide required information, not the optional stuff they ask for, and turn off the toy when it's not being used.

Your kid could get accused of a crime. Everyone has the right to privacy, especially in their own home. But home assistants such as Amazon Alexa, Google Home, and Mattel Aristotle are designed to butt their noses into conversations. These devices collect -- and store -- untold amounts of data. It's unclear what the companies do with the extraneous "noise" they pick up. And if it's subpoenaed, they might have to hand it over. Say your kid jokes about terrorism or something else illegal; if there's an investigation into those activities, the companies might have to cough up the transcripts. In Arkansas, a prosecutor asked for a murder suspect's Echo smart speaker in case its information could shed light on the crime. The suspect agreed to hand over the recordings, and Amazon was compelled to make them available.

  • Protect yourself. Turn off your home assistant's microphone when you're not using it. You also can prune your data in your devices' app settings, deleting stuff you don't want to store on your phone or in the companies' cloud servers. Or choose not to use a home assistant until the privacy regulations are ironed out.

Your kid could get hurt. With location-aware social media such as Twitter, Kik, and Facebook, kids can reveal their actual, physical locations to all their contacts -- plenty of whom they don't know personally. Imagine a selfie that's location-tagged and says, "Bored, by myself, just hanging out looking for something fun to do."

  • Protect yourself. Turn off location sharing on your kids' devices, both in the phone settings and in the apps they use, so their status updates and photos are not automatically tagged with their locations. Make sure your kids never tell strangers their address, their school name, where they hang out, or where they're going to be. Teach kids to choose "no" when asked to share their locations.

Your kid could lose out on opportunities. Posting wild and crazy pics from prom '17 paints a picture for potential admissions counselors, hiring managers, and others whom teens want to impress. They may not care that your kid partied -- only that he showed poor judgment in posting compromising images.

  • Protect yourself. Tell your kid not to share photos of questionable activities on the internet. If those kinds of photos do wind up online, tell your kid to ask his or her friends either to take them down or not to tag them so the photos can't be traced back. And remember to model responsible online sharing; don't share photos of your kid without asking permission, and share them with a limited audience -- for example, only grandparents.

Your kid could be sold short. Schools are increasingly using software from third-party providers to teach, diagnose potential learning issues, and interact with students. This software includes online learning lessons, standardized tests, and 1:1 device programs. And the companies that administer the programs are typically allowed to collect, store, and sell your kids' performance records. Wondering about all those offers for supplemental reading classes you're receiving in the mail? Maybe your kid stumbled on her reading assessments -- and marketers are trying to sell you "solutions." Curious why Harvard isn't trying to recruit your kid? Maybe they already decided she's not Ivy League material based on her middle school grades. (Learn about our Student Privacy Initiative.)

  • Protect yourself. If you know that your kid is going to be using third-party programs at school, find out what the software opts them into and what they can opt out of. Tell your kid to only supply required, not optional, information. If you have the time (and the stomach for it), you could read through the privacy policies of all the software your kid uses at school. Otherwise, talk to the principal about how the school vets companies' policies. If you're not satisfied, raise the issue with other parents (say, at the PTA meeting) to learn how your school can do more to protect student privacy.

Your kid could be limited. As schools automate procedures, they create student records with sensitive -- and potentially damaging -- information. Under the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA), schools are allowed to share certain information without getting parents' consents. That means that an individual education plan (IEP), attendance records, a disciplinary record, prescribed medication, or even a high body mass index could be disclosed and used to unfairly disqualify your kid from opportunities, such as advanced classes, government services, or special schools.

  • Protect yourself. Schools are required to send parents information on how they handle student privacy. Find out what information your school collects, how it's stored, who gets to see it, and what future administrators are allowed to do with it. Under FERPA, you have the right to request, correct, or add an amendment to your kid's records through your district's educational department.

Your kid could be humiliated. Sharing fun stuff from your life with friends is fine. But oversharing is never a good idea. When kids post inappropriate material -- whether it's a sexy selfie, an explicit photo session with a friend, an overly revealing rant, or cruel comments about others -- the results can be humiliating if those posts become public or shared widely.

  • Protect yourself. Talk to your kids about keeping private things private, considering how far information can travel and how long it can last, and how they can talk to their friends about respecting one another's personal privacy.

Your kid's data could wind up in the wrong hands. The Cambridge Analytica scandal that involved scraping information from people's profiles on Facebook proves that you can never be sure how companies are protecting your data, who they're sharing it with, and what information they're giving to third parties. 

  • Protect yourself. When you sign up for a social media account, only provide the basic information needed to set up your profile. Services such as Facebook ask for a lot of information, but often it's not required to register. When you use third-party apps, such as a downloadable quiz on Facebook, review the information the app says it's taking from your profile. If it's over-reaching, for example taking data it doesn't really need or taking your friend's data, just say no. 

About Caroline Knorr

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As Common Sense Media's parenting editor, Caroline helps parents make sense of what’s going on in their kids' media lives. From games to cell phones to movies and more, if you're wondering "what’s the right age for…?"... Read more

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Comments (10)

Adult written by arkchildren

I Completely agree with you. A very important issue you have discussed here. Parents should know the each and every activity of their child at least for the age of 12.
Parent written by L B

I have a similar problem with FERPA. I am the private tutor, babysitter, academic intervention provider, and physical therapy tech person, and more, for my 10 year old granddaughter. She is with me before school, and after school, approximately 12 hours a day. Due to fear of FERPA, the school refused to communicate with me at all about the child's educational program, needs, progress, assignments, or anything. We have tried to find out what her parents need to provide to give the school permission to be receptive to my input, and to share their expectations. We have explained that I do not need personal or private information from them. I already know everything about her. I am the one who takes her to every medical appointment, and consults with all professionals in the medical field. I administer her meds, do PT and OT, and provide needed information to them. But the school refuses to accept notarized letters, forms, or verbal permission from her parents. I am a retired elementary educator with skills in all areas of helping special needs children. I have been approved through background checks for my volunteer work at the local children's hospital, and with my church's education program. I have taken the required Virtus training program for Catholic educators, with regard to children's privacy and safety. So, in this case, FERPA has backfired, blocking a valuable resource from this student. Because the student does not communicate well, and is unable to reasonably organize her materials, I am often unable to discern what her homework assignment is, or when it is due. She is to be given extra time to complete everything. But each year, at least one teacher continually takes off points for "late" submission of homework. In order to ask questions, or deal with any problems, I must ask the parents to contact the school, wait for a response, and then report to me. One way I wish to communicate is to write little notes on homework pages, indicating which problems were especially difficult or confusing to the child, and which ones she did independently. In that way, we could all work as a team to stress the extra help and concentration in weak areas, and note progress in successful areas. Since none of this is permitted, I must resort to writing notes on the homework page, asking for clarification. The teacher can then explain to the student again. Our next step, which I am hoping will work, is to ask our attorney to create a document to be submitted by the parents, that states that I am the student's official private tutor, and the school is required to give any information requested by me. If a copy is submitted to the board of education, and is kept on file at the school, perhaps we can finally accomplish some actual help for this special needs child. We have previously decided that home schooling is not the best choice, due to my age. At 68, there is the possibility that I might not be capable of completing the process all the way through high school graduation. So the child needs to be assimilated into the public school environment. Ideally, the system would be great. She gets her direct instruction in the school setting, then I reteach as needed. But cooperation from the school district is needed. The struggle is very very sad.
Parent of a 7 and 8 year old written by tsteele93

While I don't disagree with you completely, I also think that all us old people are reacting the way the older generations have always reacted to a new world view from a new generation. The reality is that we, and to a greater degree our children, live in a world that has willingly given privacy away. We share, and over share and we gladly trade any privacy we had for attention and baubles. The reality is that our kids won't even care about privacy like we did. The world is changing and the things we think are devastating to have out there on the Internet are going to be non-issues for future generations. When the Kardashians can share the MOST INTIMATE of videos and still remain popular and relevant, then kids have no reason to fear having their privacy exploited. It may seem wrong, or sad, to us - but it is the new normal for them. Not saying it should be this way, but it IS this way and the world will be different for them than it is for us. It's just the way it works.
Adult written by chrijeff50

All very well, but what are we supposed to do about it? Kids don't think about these things; that's what makes them kids instead of grown up.
Parent of a 17 year old written by Caroline Knorr

Thanks for your feedback! I didn't want to make the article too long, so I put a link to all of our practical tips about how to handle these issues in the beginning of the article. Here it is: A lot of these questions are not at all settled. In this new economy companies are monetizing data and part of that means that they encourage kids to share more because it produces more data companies can learn from and make money off of. I wanted this story to serve as a starting point for a conversation about privacy and I appreciate all the comments.
Parent of a 16 year old written by TheBob912

Precisely! I read the entire piece anticipating a section on solutions or actions to take, but the only thing I gleaned from the article was that we have a lot to be afraid of for our kids. In fact, the lack of proposed solutions suggests to me that there isn't a lot we CAN do. Kids can outsmart most parents when it comes to technological matters. Even with just one child and work that allows me to be home much of the time, I feel that anything short of full-time monitoring is all but a lost cause. Being a good and decent example and BEING THERE as much as possible is about all we can do.
Adult written by Dr. Lisa

So what do you suggest children with IEPs and high BMIs do about their school records? It's not a good idea to opt out of services to avoid a potential hack. And the schools are mandated to keep health information on file. So what's a solution parents can use?
Parent of a 13 year old written by markburdette

Caroline, This is great information. Thanks for sharing. I attended the webinar on May 19th and found it very helpful but just wasn't long enough. Your article prompted another question I wanted to ask. I have a 13 year old and we talk openly about phone use and social media dos and don'ts but we really struggle with how best to approach subjects like these when they arise. I don't want to just share it on her phone and tell her I need you to read this article when you can. I want to have a conversation. Sometimes its difficult to get the conversation started and navigate questions and explain different scenarios as we discuss them. Any suggestions would be great. I love Common Sense Media and I think you guys do a great job of providing parents and educators the resources they need to be the best they can be for their children and students. Keep up the great work.