The advent of social media has made it possible to connect with people from every corner of the world. This boundless means of communication has, however, come at a price. Our openness online, especially through social networks, has ultimately threatened our privacy. For parents, this often overlooked aspect of the digital age has made safeguarding children’s privacy a particularly daunting task.
The importance of educating yourself and your children
First and foremost, educating your children is the best method for protecting their privacy online. Parents have a responsibility to make their children aware of the consequences of having a presence on social media. They must ensure their kids have a clear understanding of the impact their actions online can have, particularly on their parents’ reputation in the short term and their own reputation in the long term.
Beyond educating their kids, parents should familiarize themselves with the privacy policies of the networks their children use, and they should ensure that they comply with the revised rules set out in the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA). Parents must also take the time to acquaint themselves with these platforms. It’s important they know how the network operates, the nature of the interactions that take place on the platform and the kind of content that is regularly shared. In many cases, social networks institute age restrictions. Even if many underage users have profiles on social media platforms — reportedly over 5 million Facebook users are under the age of 10 — parents must ask themselves whether it’s suitable for their child to be active on such sites.
Keeping an eye on your children’s online activities
When it comes to how often a parent should check in on their kid’s online presence, it depends greatly on the age of the child, how active they are online and the social media platforms they use.
If your child is underage or if you’re particularly worried about the content shared on a certain network, then there may be a greater need to closely monitor their activities. A 2013 study from Education Database Online found that 43 per cent of parents looked at their child’s Facebook profile daily, while a further 31 per cent check them four to five times a week. This level of monitoring can go a long way in terms of keeping tabs on your child’s online presence.
Respecting your child’s privacy vs. protecting them from potential dangers
The issue of whether there is a privacy line that shouldn’t be crossed is ultimately determined by the parents’ values. Some may hold the opinion that when it comes to children, safety must always trump privacy. From cyberbullying to child predators, for many, the potential dangers facing children online mean the question of privacy must be viewed in a very different light. As written by Betsy Landers, president of the National Parent-Teacher Association, “One cannot compare reading a child’s journal to accessing his or her conversations online. The Internet is a different paradigm.” For this reason, parents must monitor their children’s activities online, make them aware of the potential threats and instruct them how to react and who to inform if they encounter such dangers. There also needs to be a level of transparency. If parents are monitoring their children’s activities online, then they must be upfront about their reasons for doing so. Lynn Schofield Clark, an associate professor of media, film and journalism studies at the University of Denver, has written, “If children interpret monitoring as a sign of parental mistrust, they’re more likely to circumvent the monitoring.”
The bigger question for society is whether children should really have privacy online and offline (particularly with the advent of mobile devices connected to the internet).
Responding when your child has been exposed to unsuitable content
If a child has been exposed to what a parent views as questionable content, then they can flag this issue with the administrators of the social media platform and, if necessary, notify the authorities. Obviously how a parent responds will be dictated by the severity of the situation. Inappropriate or illegal behaviour or content will warrant a very different response from, say, the use of foul language. Whatever the issue, it is important that parents keep their children informed and, as mentioned above, educate them of the consequences of their actions and the reasons behind those actions.
There are a host of products available that target this area of online security. Monitoring tools, such as SpyAgent, WebWatcher and PC Pandora, for example, allow parents to keep tabs on their children’s social media profiles. However, as mentioned above, it is important that parents also maintain an open dialogue with their children concerning the reasons behind such monitoring. By doing so, parents can build trust while teaching their children to protect themselves online.