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Small Child, Big Digital Footprint

We’re living in an unprecedented era in which many children have an online presence before the age of two. Yes, you read that right, two!

Ninety-two percent of U.S. children – to be exact – have an online presence before they turn two.

Data Collection

Considering that 95 percent of teens have a smartphone and are online an average of nine hours each day, they are creating massive amounts of data that is collected and shared.

“The practice of data collection could have far-reaching consequences for children’s fundamental rights,” says Sophia Allaert, Mélina Cardinal-Bradette, and Elif Sert for Wired Magazine. “We don’t know what ramifications widespread data collection could have on future generations of kids.”

Advocates from the U.K.’s Children’s Commissioner’s Office (CCO) argue that now is the time to “stop and think” about what the ramifications of “big data” may be. They suggest that children are not only being “datafied” by social media, but by other data collection that happens in everyday life.

This begs the question: “do parents even know what data they are leaking and sharing about their children and the consequences it can have?”

To be clear, your child’s data is constantly being collected from apps, web activity, and inference algorithms. Institutions use inference algorithms to gain insight into a child based on the data of other children who fall into similar categories; even if that child does not have their own digital footprint.

Digital Footprint

Recent hacking incidents also give a reason for concern about the security of children’s personal information.

John Renaldi and Mike Spertus of CPO Magazine assert that “…in the mad dash to launch a product, security tends to get deprioritized. Most companies aren’t worrying about security like a parent worries about their kids.”

Internet toymaker Cloud Pets, for example, was hacked in 2017. The data of 820,000 user accounts, which included children’s voices and photos, were compromised. At one point, this information was even held for ransom.

“To protect children’s fundamental rights,” Allaert, Cardinal-Bradette, and Sert argue, “we need a new data protection framework: one based on how the data is used, not who owns it.” Although this approach is touted by figures like Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg and Apple CEO Tim Cook, “it is not a sufficient tool in protecting individuals—especially children—from the pervasive effects of an uncontrollable online identity.”

While we wait for the laws to catch up with the seriousness of this issue, it’s our job as parents to look out for our children’s privacy when companies won’t.

Here are some simple steps parents can take to ensure their child’s privacy and protection:

#1. First and foremost, parents need to consider what data they are sharing about their children.

This piece of the equation is in our control, and we should take advantage of that!

Ask yourself: what information or images am I sharing about my children on social media? What information about my children am I sharing with apps or websites?

Because of the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA), you need to be asked permission for your child’s information to be collected if they are under 13.

Keep this in mind as your child buys products and peruses the internet. If they don’t request your permission, they are not COPPA compliant.

#2 Investigate how you and your child’s data is protected.

Renaldi and Spertus layout critical considerations in determining if your child’s data is adequately safeguarded.

First, investigate if the companies you entrust with your family’s data is taking steps to secure your information. For one, you’ll want to make sure that your data is protected while it’s digitally transmitted and encrypted when it’s stored. Read their Terms of Use or Privacy Statement if you’re unsure how they do this.

You will also want to see if the product or company is taking steps to “protect you from malware or the potential use of your device for a botnet.”

Consider how the encryption keys are being stored and protected, and if the hardware is tamper-resistant.

The answers to all these questions are indicators of a healthy (or unhealthy) security system and should be used to assess all companies and products.

#3. Set up strict privacy settings in apps and on websites your child uses.

This a simple yet effective one suggested by the experts at Common Sense Media.

Whenever your child gets a new app, immediately set up your privacy and security settings. This should include limiting location sharing and disabling apps from posting to social media.

#4. Empower your kids to read the fine print and make smart decisions online.

We have to give our children the tools to make informed decisions about their online behavior and the ramifications it has.

As you learn to read the fine print of Privacy Statements, encourage your children to do the same.

Teach your children to “keep private things private,” such as their home address, phone number, and other personal identifying information. One way to do this, as suggested by Common Sense Media is to set up family rules around online activity, specific websites, and social platforms.

The earlier you’re able to establish a family culture of healthy online behavior, the better.

The truth is, we don’t know what the future will look like for children who are “datafied” so early on in life. Although we can’t predict the future, we can take steps to make sure our children’s privacy is secure.