Let me start out right away from this corner of the security world by saying that I do not, in fact, have children of my own. I helped raise a teenager due to misadventures by one of my siblings and have girlfriend-parented a couple others here and there, but I am going to approach this discussion from the point of view of pure security professionalism and try to avoid the morass of feelings and parent/child relationships that some of you have to negotiate day to day. That caveat stated clearly, here’s the honest truth:
There can be absolutely zero privacy for your child’s web habits if under the age of consent in the state where you live. (I choose to say it this way, because there is some variety state to state in what is legal when. You can talk about this with your kid after you look it up online, and that’s not what this article is about.) The topic of your child’s web privacy is not something that can be danced around or negotiated or ignored, for your own sake as well as your child. Your kid may be the one true angel living among us, doing no harm and with good intent, and still be victimized in one of many ways. You are providing them the technology, you own it, and you will be held responsible in most courts of law. Therefore you need to know the top four issues facing you:
1. Identity theft. You think it’s something only grown-ups need to fear? Imagine turning 18 and getting your first driver’s license and bank account only to discover that you’re already wanted by the IRS for tax evasion, a failed mortgage, and with a credit score in the low 200s for all those credit cards you ran up. Yes, Virginia, it can happen to your kid. Parents (I know, not you reading this, but it happens in bad places) have been known to steal their own children’s identities for the sake of buying things they cannot afford. This sucks, and it is painful to do the recovery steps. Protect your child as best you can by keeping their real names off the internet, especially on social media that also contains their birth date.
2. Predators. You’ve watched the shows on TV. Especially with the new social networking sites and chat rooms, there are people out there that really do get their jollies off on what might seem like harmless chatting to your child. But predators are real, and they are scary, and you absolutely need to know all the names and handles/contacts that your child speaks to online. Once upon a time a parent knew all their child’s friends, and could simply say don’t talk to strangers or get in their cars. This is harder to police online, but think of it as being roughly the same. Talk to your the friends of your children’s parents and make sure that you all know each of the kids’ login names and user IDs so that you know who is sending what kind of messages and when.
3. Malice. Trust me, there is nothing more horrible than a group of 11-12 year olds feeling wronged or upset with one of their number. Read this recent news report of kids using each other’s Facebook accounts to cause harm to their classmate. There ARE cyber laws that apply to most ages, and I recommend looking them up or asking about them at your local police station or sheriff’s office. (You can email them asking things – they tend to love to help, especially if you talk about child safety!)
4. Wayward kids. Frankly, you should know all the phone numbers that come into your kid’s phones. You must know who is calling and texting them, who they are contacting, and what is being said and done. You must somehow believe that ALL KIDS LIE sooner or later, even if it’s not about something serious. As a former wayward kid myself, I can report with absolute certainty that phones and the internet would have probably gotten my rights read to me by someone in uniform if I’d had them. This is a hard fight if you’ve conceded any privacy to them for a phone or an email account, but as a parent you ABSOLUTELY need to know where they’re going and what they’re talking about and who with. Learn what these acronyms mean. Your kids do, and for their sake you have to speak their language:
Hopefully by now you’re at least a little paranoid, and will take the following tips to heart:
1. Firewalls are your friend, and you should have some commercially available product on every computer or laptop in your house. You should then sit down with the help files and work out how to create the parental controls. Your child should NOT have admin rights on their own machine. If they want to download a new game, you need to be the one helping them. It is both your credit card being used to buy it, and your responsibility to decide if the game is appropriate. You may be fine with your four year old playing Call of Duty, but you should know what it is. And keep the kids from surfing porn, cause that’s super illegal. (I had three brothers. Trust me. All boys will, sooner or later.)
2. If you are okay with your kids being on general public social networking sites (Facebook, LiveJournal, etc), please help them set their pages up. I recommend them using pet names or nicknames or NOT their full real names and if at all possible not their real pictures. Cartoon faces are good! If they beg prettily, let them add their birthdays but NOT the full birthdate with the year visible. No one needs to know how old your child is online. Do not let their emails or home town or any other personal information be seen. Also I recommend spending time on each of the account privacy settings and make sure that only friends can read each page and setting. Agree with your child on the password, and you as the adult need to own it because you’re the one that needs to check it daily (or weekly depending on your level of paranoia). If your kid changes their password so that you cannot read it, then the computer needs to be withdrawn until the arrangement can be discussed again. It’ll keep you both out of legal trouble. Be a hard liner here.
Point of fact: One of your kid’s “friends” can, in mean spirited wickedness, narc them out to FB that they’re not using their real name. Talk about this in advance with the kid, and say that if or when it happens, they will need to make a new page. Do not let anything force your kid into violating these safety precautions or provide Facebook with a copy of their identification. They have lawsuits enough going on. Here’s a set of instructions for how to set up a fake FB identity:
With any luck, soon the rules will be changed. It was under some debate earlier this year at FaceBook.
3. Inform your darlings to NEVER EVER access any of their email, websites, or accounts from anyone else’s computer. Ever. And that they should NEVER EVER let friends access their pages from a computer not theirs. No password sharing or saving! Say it three times and click your heels. This goes for using the library computers too – don’t ever let the web browser save passwords. Always say No to remembering a password.
4. Own passwords. Just own them and change them at least every three months. No admin rights for under-aged kids. That’s the alpha and omega right there. You’re protecting them, not being an evil dictator.
And surf the web yourself for good places for your kids to play, especially the young ones. PBS has some great sites. I recommend this site highly for both sites and information. Safe surfing for the little dudes and dudettes!