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Parents’ Guide to Protecting Kids’ Privacy Online

First Things First: Help Your Kids Protect Their Privacy

There’s a lot of talk about privacy. But what is it, really? There are two key components of privacy that affect you and your kids: consumer privacy and personal privacy. Consumer privacy relates to the data that companies can collect about you. Personal privacy refers to your online reputation. In today’s world, where sharing is becoming the norm, it’s crucial for kids to understand the importance of sharing appropriately. Everything kids say or do online can affect their reputation.

Digital life is very public and often permanent. If kids don’t protect their personal information, what they do online will create a digital footprint that wanders and persists. Something that happens on the spur of the moment — a funny picture, a certain post — can resurface years later. And if kids aren’t careful, their reputation can get away from them, and third parties — like marketers or potential employers — can access what kids thought was private information. Privacy settings help – but they aren’t failsafe. Plus, companies sometimes change their privacy policies, which may mean you need to update your settings.

Kids can interact safely online if they understand the importance of protecting their own privacy. Here’s how to help.

How do I set the privacy settings on my computer?

The place to protect your computer against privacy invasion is your Web browser. When you go online, websites install “cookies” on your computer that track your movements. Some cookies can be beneficial — like the ones that remember your passwords so you don’t have to log into your online accounts every time you visit a site. But some cookies are designed to remember everything you do online, build a profile of your habits, and sell that information to advertisers and other companies.

Most browsers, including Internet Explorer, Mozilla Firefox, and Safari, let you turn on a “Do Not Track” tool to tell sites you don’t want cookies installed. (It’s not yet clear whether sites and ad networks will respect those Do Not Track signals from users.) Take a look at the privacy settings offered in your browser (usually found in the Tools menu) to see whether you can fine-tune them to keep the good and block the bad.

How can I check my computer to see whether my child has signed up for something online?

The Internet is full of enticements to sign up for something. Sometimes these come-ons make it sound like you’ve won a prize, and all you need to do is register to receive your winnings. If your kid registered for an account, downloaded a program, or entered a contest, you may not know unless you notice a new program on your computer. Here’s how to get to the bottom of things, in order of the least intrusive:

1) Ask your kid. Explain that there are a lot of scams out there that can spread viruses, so it’s important to ask permission before signing up for something.
2) Check the browser history. Look for telltale words like “registration page” or “thank you for registering.”
3) Check your kid’s email. Companies send a confirmation email to the address used in the sign-up. If your kid is under 13, companies are supposed to get your permission before they collect or use any information from your kid — although it’s easy for kids to dodge that and say that they’re older.

What basic privacy steps should all parents discuss with their kids?

Explain that nothing is really private online. It’s crucial for kids to guard their own online privacy by not posting and sharing things they don’t want to become public.

Here are 9 more tips:

  • Ask permission before you go online.
  • Never share passwords.
  • Keep personal details — name, address, phone number, how much money your parents make — to yourself.
  • Think before you post — is this really something you want to share?
  • If you want to sign up for a website, ask permission (and, parents, make sure you read the site’s privacy policy).
  • Only communicate with people you know — never chat with or send photos to strangers.
  • Know how to recognize ads — and don’t click on them.
  • Thoroughly examine each site’s privacy settings, and use strict ones to start.
  • For teens who are part of an online community, online interactions will go beyond basic. They should know what’s OK to share and what isn’t. It’s OK to respectfully share opinions, constructive feedback, appropriate comments, and creativity. It’s not OK to share intimate photos, hate speech, or destructive comments.

What basic privacy settings should be used?

Basic privacy settings protect your information from exposure to both people and companies. Closely evaluate all of the privacy settings that limit who can find you (only friends? friends of friends? the entire Internet?) and how people can contact you (by email? by phone? through a mutual friend?). Kids should also severely restrict settings that give companies access to their information — for example, the apps and games on Facebook. These third-party apps are notorious for collecting personal information from users and their friends!

What are the data gatherers doing with all that info?

They’re making money — lots of money — with it. Companies can collect data on every interaction you have with a website. That includes anything you click on and any information you input when you fill out a form. They can even look for keywords in your online profile or email, and, in some cases, they can access the information of people in your network. Companies aren’t supposed to use data to personally identify individual users, but the technology they use to tailor ads to your interests can feel awfully personal.

Companies aggregate data to build composite profiles of people’s habits, preferences, and purchases, which is valuable information for marketers. Next time you or your kid wants to register for a free site, remember that the price you pay for admission is your data.

What should I do when other people post pictures of my child online?

First, just ask — nicely — for the person to take the photos down or crop them so your kid isn’t in them.

If you’re OK with a photo but only want certain people to see it, ask the poster to enable settings that limit who can see the photo to a small circle.

If your kid is on Facebook and is tagged in a photo, everyone in her friend network will see it. She can untag the photo (it will still appear, but it won’t be linked). We recommend using the privacy setting that lets you approve a tag before it goes live.

Is there a way to get a simple explanation of privacy settings on sites like Google+ and Facebook?

On both sites, the simplest explanations are actually right next to the box where you post. These contextual instructions are ideal — in theory — because they tell you who you’re sharing with every time you upload something.

Facebook uses an “inline audience selector” to let you easily choose who sees anything you post. It’s a great tool, but it requires you to be pretty vigilant about creating various lists of friends and assigning them levels of sharing status.

Google+ uses “circles” to illustrate whom you’re sharing with. But, again, you have to groom your circles frequently to know who’s in each circle — and, frankly, it’s still a little confusing.

Most companies’ privacy policies and settings are constantly evolving, so it’s smart to check them and tweak them frequently. And remember: The whole point of Facebook, Google+, and other social sites is to share information. So if you think their privacy settings are hard to understand, there’s a reason. A good rule of thumb is that the longer and more complex the explanation, the more money the company is making off that particular piece of information.

Are companies allowed to use an agreement accepted by someone underage?

It depends. According the Children’s Online Privacy and Protection Act (COPPA), companies can’t collect information on kids under 13 — without a parent’s consent. And there’s the rub. Online, it’s easy to pretend you’re the parent and fake consent or avoid that step altogether by faking your birthdate.

Here’s the way it’s supposed to work: Your 11-year-old signs up for, say, an online game network using his real age. The sign-up form asks him to provide parental consent, usually in the form of your email address. You get an email asking for your approval while your obedient child patiently waits.

But a few things can go awry. Your kid could intercept that email. Or, he can sign up with a false birthdate — in which case he won’t need your consent at all.

Either way, the company is none the wiser. But companies don’t want to violate COPPA. If you find out your kid signed up for something under false pretenses, contact the company to get your kid off their list.


Caroline Knorr

 As Common Sense Media's parenting editor, Caroline Knorr 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…?" Caroline can help you make the decision that works best for your… MORE >

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