The New Birds and Bees: 8 Challenges of Explaining Online Privacy to Kids

Kobi Nissan
min read

<hl>Discussing online privacy issues with kids is more important than ever. Here’s why so many of us struggle to do so.<hl>

In 2019, Google had to reconsider its personalized ads policy following a $170 million fine related to YouTube’s privacy violations against kids. A report published in 2018 by the Children’s Commissioner shows that more data is collected on younger generations than ever before and that this data might have devastating future consequences.

Challenges of Explaining Online Privacy to Kids

These and other advancements in the field of children’s online privacy make it clear that corporates’ data access and usage is a topic worth discussing from an early age, but for a number of reasons, many parents fail to do so. Here are 8 reasons why the talk about online privacy has become the 4.0 parenting challenge.

1. You think you know: Not realizing what kids are doing online

It’s only when their child texts them a selfie that parents realize how wrong they were to assume that the kid’s online capabilities are limited. When it comes to online actions, chances are your kid can teach you a thing or two (or three). In addition, many children are active on digital platforms that parents don’t know exist, and so they might leave them out of the discussion due to a lack of awareness or just plain embarrassment.

Parents to young kids assume that there’s still plenty of time before they need to have “the talk” about online privacy. They’re wrong. Research shows that by the age of 12, more than half of children have multiple, active social media accounts and that the average age for getting a smartphone is 10.3. Even before that, these kids hang out with friends who started their digital journey at a much younger age. We all need to start this discussion much, much earlier.

2. Dangerous blind spots: Focusing on other dangers

It’s not just the stranger with candy you have to be worried about, but also the website with cookies. We all know how important it is to warn children about online dangers, but what usually comes to mind, for obvious reasons, has to do with individuals using online platforms with malicious intent. We tell kids to never meet any stranger they’ve interacted with online and teach them not to send intimate information or images. By focusing only on these warnings, parents neglect to protect children’s privacy from other incredibly crucial and much more common dangers.

3. Lead by example: Not understanding their own privacy issues

Many parents are far from practicing what they preach, and when it comes to online privacy, the problem is more evident than ever. Most of us never examine the tools and websites that follow us online, and so it’s no wonder that we find it difficult to teach our children what we ourselves do not comprehend. The first step for parents looking to raise the awareness levels at home is to learn how their online data is being collected and used. Ask which data is being gathered and how, where it is stored and for how long, and how 3rd parties may be exposed to your information.

4. Look in the mirror: Violating kids’ privacy themselves

Oops! If kids have a right to privacy, parents themselves might be violating it when posting pictures and private information. They could be negatively affecting their children’s online reputation and digital footprint by “sharenting”, or violating their kids’ rights by tracking their actions using different tools and apps. By the age of 5, the average kid has 1,500 online photos, which were shared by their own parents. When parents realize that, it makes discussing online boundaries much harder, as it calls for a subtle balance and a long, hard look in the mirror.

5. Impossible to shake: Unaware of the importance of a digital footprint

Kids share the darndest things, because they are unable to place boundaries when asked to provide information. Parents sometimes do not understand that this digital footprint creates their child’s online entity, which will follow them around for the rest of their lives, affecting the content they view and the information others will be exposed to. It makes sense for parents to miss out on that, considering how many of us are unaware of the importance of digital footprints even as adults. We tell our kids that they can do anything they set their minds to, but first, they have to set their privacy settings.

Explaining Online Privacy to Kids
YouTube Parental Control interface – Google was fined $170 million for violating children’s privacy on YouTube.

6. Targeting your kids: Unaware of the power of targeted ads

Another problem has to do with the way this data is being used by companies to target kids with personalized ads. Children are generally more vulnerable to marketing techniques because at an early age, they are unable to tell advertising from reality and take the ads’ content with a grain of salt. That is why many legislators found it important to form strict rules on advertising to children, long before approaching the problems related to data harvesting.

7. Trust no one: Relying on regulation

Speaking of regulation, kids’ right to privacy is protected under a number of laws, including The United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, The Children's Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA) GDPR, and more. But the fines companies face for violating children’s privacy are often seen as a slap on the wrist considering big tech’s daily earnings. Since children have a strong influence of family purchases, the bottom line is that corporates may very well find it worthwhile to continue invading their privacy despite the fines.

8. Shifting sands: Struggling to keep track

They grow up so fast, don’t they? And by “they” we mean both the children and the devices or platforms they use. Parents struggle to keep up with the constant changes and might mistakenly think they’re safe when in reality, everything they’ve warned their kids about is no longer relevant and there are other issues worth focusing on. Everything changes by the minute: kids’ interests and knowledge, the platforms and devices they opt for, privacy policies, and more.

It’s not easy to protect our loved ones from something we don’t fully understand ourselves, but when our kids’ safety is at risk, we’ll make any effort necessary. The idea isn’t to scare kids away from the screen, but instead to give them better tools. We must explain to them which details should not be provided (passwords, home address), when to reach out to an adult, and how to control the privacy settings on each of the platforms they use.

One positive outcome of investigating this issue is that as we discuss their safety and boundaries, we’ll have a chance to reconsider our own. Following our paternal instinct will lead us to create a safer online environment for everyone, very much including ourselves.

The New Birds and Bees: 8 Challenges of Explaining Online Privacy to Kids

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