Modern field guide to security and privacy

Opinion: How to talk digital privacy with kids

It may not be possible without eliciting moans and eye rolls. But the digital privacy talk is essential in an era when technology is so intimately intertwined with childhood.

Cole Burston/The Canadian Press/AP
A Pokemon Go player in Toronto.

Most parents dread to have the talk with their kids. It can be awkward, embarrassing, and it challenges us to get the balance right: enough detail without TMI. At least we all know the basic information and we find a way to convey the facts without alarming our kids. 

Now, parents are being asked to have an equally challenging conversation about staying safe, secure and private online – without inducing groans and eye rolls. And in an age of connected devices, Wi-Fi enabled toys, and personal assistants such as Amazon Echo, the fundamental facts of what happens to your data and online choices can be harder to find out and explain to your children. 

Kids are spending countless hours with technologies that collect and analyze their personal information, record and store conversations, learn their habits, and track locations. And while these functions may make the game more interactive or enhance the experience online, what's happening with all that data? Are companies sharing it with third parties, are they selling it, are they using it to target your kids with ads and other services?

So, in an era when apps are plentiful and smartphones have become a ubiquitous teen accessory, parents and guardians need to be extra vigilant when it comes to safeguarding kids' data.

Then what’s a good digital parent to do? Begin by letting them know that you care about their privacy. Ask them to show you what privacy settings they are already using on their phones and in their apps. As your child grows older, she will want more freedom and less parental stalking. While giving them their digital space, explain the importance of her not giving away her data or physical presence to every device or service that she uses.

As challenging as this may sound, look at the terms of service of the connected gizmos that you buy for your child. Consider buying from trusted manufacturers and check the safety and security settings that ship with a toy or connected device that the whole family might use.  

How does the Amazon Echo treat what we say to it? Will the new talking (and listening) pet dinosaur, Dino, keep tabs on what our kids are asking it? Will the conversations that your child has with Hello Barbie be shared in any way with the toy’s maker and it’s third party affiliates? 

These are tough questions and the answers are aren’t obvious.

Niantic, the makers of the crazy popular Pokemon Go game had to quickly move to reassure users that they would not, in fact, be accessing the personal emails of folks who downloaded the app and agreed to use their Google account as a quick and easy way to get signed up to start "collecting them all."

Samsung raised eyebrows and created a privacy storm over what their Smart TV could hear and how the company was going to handle the personal conversations of its users, including children. Their privacy policy was quickly changed, but concerns remain about how our increasingly wired and connected homes, cars and even kids clothing can be trusted not to collect personally sensitive data.

As is often said, parenting is the hardest job. Although, in many ways, technology and the advent of the Internet of Things, smartphones, and artificial intelligence in devices, make our job as parents a good deal easier.

We can monitor our home and our loved ones from afar. There are remarkable efficiencies and savings to be had from smart thermometers to intelligent washing machines. We can challenge our kids through fitness trackers to reach their personal goals and keep track of our baby’s vital signs using tiny sensors in clothing or web-enabled wristbands.

But parenting has also got a whole lot harder and more complex.  In addition to keeping their kids safe, secure and private online, parents must now navigate a dizzying array of, what in the past have been, ordinary household items such as thermostats, refrigerators, and televisions for data collection and potential privacy issues. It will take vigilance and a careful reading of terms and conditions of use to navigate what is acceptable to a parent and how to convey that understanding to their kids. 

And, no doubt, lawmakers and regulators will weigh in on what new rules of the road will have to be introduced to protect consumers from unscrupulous operators and unlawful applications. It will be a delicate balance to ensure sufficient safeguards while also allowing for innovation and new devices to emerge. 

In the end, it may well take the next generation of parents, who have grown up with the web, social media, and the marvels of digital technology, to fully grasp the potential, but also avoid the pitfalls of our always-on, monitored, and connected world. 

 Stephen Balkam is the founder and chief executive officer of Family Online Safety Institute, a nonprofit organization that aims to make the web safer for kids and their families. Follow him on Twitter @StephenBalkam.


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