Tips for protecting children's online privacy

By Mieke VanderBorghtJune 15, 2018

Children's online privacy
(Photo Credit: U.S. Army) VIEW ORIGINAL

VICENZA, Italy -- Maybe you've heard of it: the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR). It's that new sweeping law about online privacy that just recently took effect in the 28 European Union countries.

Whether you've read the new policy's every detail or you're looking at this article with your face scrunched up in a "huh?" expression, you've most likely already been affected by it.

You know those emails asking you to accept new privacy policies, or -- given that we're living in an EU country -- the websites that have started asking you to consent to collecting cookies. That's all part of it. Yet, if you're like 90 percent of the internet-using public (according to a recent Deloitte survey), you probably clicked away without actually reading the policy. You were probably just concerned about getting to the website or app as quickly as possible. But wait! Especially as a parent, you should really be paying close attention. Here's why.

The new law is based and enforceable in the EU, but is important for United States citizens for at least two reasons. First, the law applies to any company that handles data from EU citizens, even if that company is based outside the EU. So all those big international tech giants must also comply. Second, it's a great opportunity to take a moment and really reflect on just how well you're protecting your family's privacy. Join me as we walk through this together.

It starts with you. It's quite likely your children have a digital presence before they're even able to look at a screen. Remember those ultrasound pictures that you posted to your social media account announce to friends and family the arrival of your little bundle of joy? They also clue the tech companies in to your growing family.

As your children grow, you post more pictures, write blogs, tweet, and message away to show off how cute they are, celebrate their successes and milestones, share family vacations, and commiserate with others about the trials and tribulations of parenting (in a foreign country, no less!). You're sharing your life with your community, which may be especially important and understandable given that you're so far away from home.

But know that by doing that, you're also broadcasting your children's lives -- and you're doing it most likely without their consent. So what happens when they grow up?

It's like that classic trick of pulling out an old photo of your child, naked in the bathtub as a baby (or doing something horribly embarrassing), to show the new boyfriend or girlfriend who has just come over to meet the parents. Except forget just potential boyfriends or girlfriends, you're showing it the whole world. And it's searchable. And other people can copy it and use or share it however they like. Oh, and it's permanent.

When your children are still young enough for you to be the major keeper of their online lives, take the job seriously. Think carefully about what information you're sharing about them and with whom you're sharing it. It might help to imagine them as adults and ask what they would think about the world knowing this about them.

Read the privacy policies carefully so you know how your data is collected and used. Consider alternative options for sharing with family and friends, such as private photo-sharing services. Use pseudonyms or a first initial instead of including your children's names. And think carefully about who really needs to be included in your family and friends circle.

Now it's their turn. Okay, your children have grown and they're old enough to do their own damage. They're using apps, they have a smartphone, and they're all over social media. Ideally, you've set them up for success by modeling good, responsible practices when it comes to protecting your and their online privacy.

In addition, make sure you keep tabs on what are they getting into. Teach them explicitly about safe sharing and about what should never be shared (real names, locations, other personally identifiable information, naked pictures … and the list goes on). Walk them through reading privacy policies and setting up privacy settings. Remember, they're still young: check their accounts on a regular basis to make sure they're not offering up inappropriate information.

Finally, know the laws. Currently, the only protection for children's privacy online in the U.S. is called the Children's Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA). It's somewhat limited, but requires certain companies to obtain parental consent to collect or use data from children under the age of 13.

The new EU GDPR goes much further. In general, all EU citizens will have more control over their data. Specifically for children, it requires that any company that handles the data of EU citizens must explain what kinds of data they collect on children and get parental consent for dealing with data on children under the age of 16. Children and adults in the EU will also have the right to see what data a company has on them, and to correct or delete the information.

We already know some of the consequences of allowing companies to collect information about us. Advertisers target specific ads based on our on- (and sometimes off-) line activities. Search engines return certain results based on our profiles and where we live. Unsecured sharing may leave us vulnerable to identity theft, manipulation and more.

What we don't know is what else might be waiting for us in the future when companies know our every like and dislike, including important life moments, preferences, religion, political beliefs and more, not to mention where we are at any given moment. Children are especially vulnerable to all of this.

So what are you waiting for? Start reading those privacy policies and take charge of your -- and your children's -- online presence.

For more information:

Great privacy and safety tips for families:

The full GDPR:

(VanderBorght is a Child Development Specialist/Media Educator and Family Advocacy Program Parent-Child Educator and Emergency Placement Coordinator for U.S. Army Garrison Italy.)

Related Links:

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USAG Italy website