Protecting Children’s Privacy a Comprehensive Guide

Billy Swain | 25 Feb 2019

In light of recent headlines centred around social media platforms and various online websites failing to protect children’s privacy online, it’s completely reasonable for parents across the globe to take their children’s online safety completely into their own hands.

Over the past few years, the most common online child privacy issues typically extend from children being preyed on by scammers, cruelly taunted and coerced into playing twisted satanic games. There’s always been the issue of kids being singled out by cyberbullies which you’ll, of course, have to be forward about and teach your children to block and ignore those types of interactions.

You might find all of those issues too much to handle and lean toward a total internet ban though, in the digital age, this is just about as effective as a screen door on a submarine.

To be as effective as possible at protecting your child’s privacy online you’ll need to monitor, inform and limit internet use. There are parts of the web that should be off-limits to children and keeping these parts of the web away from innocent eyes can be difficult, but it’s still certainly doable.

There are unenforced regulations in place that are designed to protect children, so you’re unfortunately not able to rely on these. We’ll take a look over a range of information, tips, tricks and steps to keeping your children safe online below.

Australian Government Regulations Aren’t Working

In Australia, a large majority of our online protection programs for children rely on self-regulation and reporting. What this essentially means is that no websites or device makers are required to have any sort of protocol or system in place that protects children even though there is somewhat of an expected Duty of Care. All we currently have in place to protect our children online as far as laws go is the Privacy Act of 1988 which features no real children-specific laws.

A snippet from Australia’s Privacy Act of 1988 is below:

“As a general principle, an individual under the age of 18 has capacity to consent when they have sufficient understanding and maturity to understand what is being proposed. In some circumstances, it may be appropriate for a parent or guardian to consent on behalf of a young person, for example, if the child is young or lacks the maturity or understanding to do so themselves … An individual aged under 15 is presumed not to have capacity to consent.”

The United States has also tried their hand at developing regulations that were initially expected to protect children, before they backfired. After developing the 1998 Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act, websites that were compliant with the act actually drove children away. this was down to the fact that children aged 13 or under were required to obtain parental consent to access certain sites – which is far too much of a burden for kids. They simply left the compliant websites and browsed on non-compliant ones.

All of the above said, parents cannot rely on website self-regulation or regulation in any sense, considering that the laws drafted by the government barely provide any children protections at all. This leaves it entirely up to parents to educate, monitor and limit internet usage through other means.

Children Really Are At Risk

Considering that almost 70 per cent of children aged between 12 and 13 have a smartphone that provides them with constant internet access, there’s a very good chance that your child might run into some privacy-related issues sooner or later.

Depending on which apps, games and other services your child uses, there could be swathes of information being shared with advertisers and other third-parties which is to be used to help target your child with marketing and even scams. When you factor in all of the newest and most popular social media platforms from Instagram, Tumblr, TikTok and Snapchat, you’re looking at an entire suite of applications that are designed to absorb as much personal data as they can. This is a major red flag for many parents.

Where things get really murky is where this data could end up. Although advertising in itself isn’t typically malicious – it is just a product’s ad after all – there are still ways your child’s data could land in the wrong hands. The Cambridge Analytics scandal is just one example of social media companies handing off personal data to the highest bidder and this presents an issue that could one day lead your child’s personal data right into the hands of a scammer, predator or identity thief.

Potential Issues

Aside from the expected targeted advertising, there could be far worse outcomes to allowing your child to sign up to, and access any social media platform or website that they want. Left unchecked, your child could be sharing your address, first and last names, phone number and even photos in school uniforms to their social accounts which could all be used for malicious purposes by child predators.

KidSpot reported that 39 per cent of children aged 8 and up had their real names on social media profiles and 24 per cent had posted a photo in their school uniform. This, of course, is a major issue and leaves a paper trail for criminals to follow children to their schools, contact them to sell drugs or potentially steal their identity.

A Guide to Monitoring and Protecting Children Online

Now that we’ve gone over a few of the major issues that can arise by ignoring child privacy online we’ll take a look at how to keep your child’s privacy safe. It might seem an impossible task to stay on top of your children’s internet habits across hundreds of websites and countless apps and games, but it can be done, and quite easily too.

Take Control of Each Device and Social Platform

It won’t come as a surprise that each device and social platform will need to be monitored individually. Both iOS and Android devices feature different parental features as do all social media accounts, some of which feature very little privacy features at all.

First and foremost, you’ll want to decide whether device-wide control and restrictions are necessary, or whether app by app controls are more suitable. If you’re leaning toward a device-wide solution, then you’ll be glad to know that both Android and iOS devices feature parents restrictions which block access to certain applications, websites and device functions like camera access or location services.

When it comes to social media accounts, you’ll need to head into the privacy and security settings of each platform and adjust the settings to your liking. Typically you’ll have control of whether your child’s ‘friends’ can see their content and whether you’d like to switch to a private profile – where all strangers will be blocked from accessing any media or chats.

You’ll find more information for security and privacy on each device and social platform later in the article.

Become A Friend, Follower or Viewer

There’s no easier way to keep an eye on your child’s online activities than to become one of their audience members. If you’ve noticed they’re spending hours posting to their Snapchat or Instagram Stories, then make an account on those platforms to join in. You’ll see everything they’re posting (aside from content in private chats) and you’ll be able to quickly shut down any accidental exposure of private information like locations, school uniforms and even the car’s number plate.

This method also holds true for video games. If you’re wanting a look into your kid’s gaming habits or what they’re doing on Fortnite or Minecraft, then create an account and ask them for their username or server that they’re playing on. In doing this, you’ll be able to find them in the virtual world and keep an eye on what they’re telling strangers in the game’s public chat.

A Few Parental ‘Rules’

If you are planning on keeping a closer eye on your child by ‘infiltrating’ their social and gaming platforms, then don’t do it in secret. You absolutely must be upfront about this and let them know that you’ll be keeping an eye on them and let them know what your username is. If you turn this into spying or stalking, you’ll erode trust and you might even find that you’re blocked or that you’ve pushed your child into making another private account without your knowledge.

Secondly, an explanation about why you’re monitoring your child’s socials is essential. To prevent yourself from being seen as that ‘overbearing’ parent that kids despise you must ensure that they understand the risks involved with being unmonitored online. Explain that you’re only making sure that they’re not exposing too much information online and that it’s ultimately to keep them safe on their favourite platforms. You could even show them some of the statistics in this article or in the headlines to strengthen your argument.

Understand, Inform and Stray From Data ‘Vacuums’

Exposed in thousands of headlines after the Cambridge Analytica scandal come the websites that seem to exist only to absorb user data. Often hidden within online quizzes, IQ tests, personality assessments and more, these types of websites go far beyond tricking minors, they also have a handle on just about every adult user too.

These sites will generally ask you to log in to get your results, or to log in before the test, with your social media accounts. They then provide the quiz, test or game whilst simultaneously syphoning all of your Facebook, Instagram, Twitter or Google Plus data. This data is then stored and shared with advertisers or the highest bidder thanks to the fact that Facebook has little control (or concern) over where their user’s data goes.

One of the more concerning outcomes of having your data syphoned is that Facebook and other platforms don’t often restrain these websites. That means they’ll have access to your account, its media as well as chats and more.

Keep in mind that not all of these quiz websites do this. You’ll be able to spot the difference quite easily if you check the URL. If your quiz or test is coming from a URL that’s been shortened or looks suspicious then it’s best to stay away from it. Stick to brands and websites you know, and even then be cautious.

For more information on how to spot a suspicious looking link take a look at Corsica Technologies article.

Be Aware of What’s Really Happening Out There

In addition to understanding the current risks online and learning of which scams to steer clear of, it’s also vital to know what social media companies and web companies are doing.

In early 2019, Facebook was caught doing something that was labelled ‘disgusting,’ by social media users, ‘spyware,’ by news outlets and something so unethical that Apple blocked Facebook’s entire corporate application suite. This ultimately sent Facebook employees into a meltdown and let them unable to use any of their work devices. This ‘something’ was Facebook’s deceptive teen and pre-teen smartphone use tracking service aptly named ‘Facebook Research’ that funnelled quite literally all usage information from kids smartphones to Facebook’s servers for analysis.

Soon after Facebook’s actions were uncovered, Google was also in the firing line for having created an app called Screenwise Meter which essentially allowed pre-teens, teens and adults to ‘Trade of All [Their] Privacy for Cash’ as eff.org puts it. This data collection extended down to each individual image or paragraph a user was looking at on their device.

Both of these issues above highlight that, as a parent, you simply cannot trust social media companies and large tech companies to put your best interest in front of their financial gains. This means keeping your children protected online really is in your own hands.

Take Advantage of Privacy Settings

There’s a good chance that you and your kids are using the same base social media platforms such as Facebook, Instagram and Twitter, which means that you should have some idea about how to navigate the privacy settings. These are fantastic first lines of defence for your children and will protect against a few major privacy issues such as stranger’s peering eyes.

Delve through the privacy settings with your children and let them know what you’re disabling and enabling and make sure they understand not to change them. This way you can be sure that there’s some level of privacy being supplied during the time your kids are online.

  • A few of the Facebook privacy features we recommend you enable are:
  • Removal of Profile from Search Results
  • Set Post Audience to Private
  • Phone Numbers to Only Me
  • Emails to Only Me
  • Removal of Addresses Entirely

We’ll have per-site security recommendations later in the article.

One trick social media websites play is creating an illusion that boosting your privacy settings will affect how the application or website operates. This is almost entirely untrue. After turning your child’s privacy settings up to eleven their social accounts will work exactly the same as they did before, only now there won’t be prying eyes on a profile that lands in Google’s search results with images of your child’s face.

Lock Down Invasive Smartphone and Tablet Features

Heading into 2020, our smart devices are more connected than ever, so much so that you’ll notice just by walking near a store your smartphone will notify you of deals and sales happening – without even having the store’s application.

These features are all well and good if you’re an adult who’s informed of the risk involved and can take countermeasures to stay protected. For children however, these ever-connected features pose a major threat. If your child is using an application like Snapchat for example, their movements are constantly recorded on Snap Map and broadcast to anyone with their username – if their account is set to public. Essentially, this will mean no matter where your child is, they can be found by anyone with their Snap Code.

Cameras on laptops and smart devices are also stumbling into the spotlight recently with law enforcement and security companies outlining that they can be remotely switched on without the indicator light showing that the camera is in use.

With all of the above said, it’s certainly time to take full control of smartphone and tablet location and camera features. If you’re a parent who enjoys having location tracking on through Find my Friends to know where your children are when they’re not at home, then the good news is that you don’t have to give this up.

Location and GPS services can be switched off app-by-app and that means platforms like Snapchat will be blocked from reporting live locations and you’ll still be able to keep watch of your kids.

The fix to cameras is a little more retro – sticking a sticker or some tape over the sensor. You’ll notice that even Mark Zuckerberg, CEO of Facebook, has his laptop’s camera and microphone taped so there’s no shame in covering these up for the sake of privacy.

Adjust Individual App and Website Security Settings

After you’ve gone over all of the steps above, it’s time to delve deep into all of your child’s application settings and website privacy options. These will (sometimes) hold a treasure trove of settings and controls to block outside users peeking in, keep strangers from interacting all together and keep all posts and online activity private.

We’ll take a look at all of the leading and trending social platforms below, however, if we’ve missed one of your child’s favourite social applications you can always search for the app’s privacy settings in one of the side panes. Almost all applications follow a universal user interface, so you shouldn’t have any trouble finding privacy settings.

Instagram

Starting off our list are the kid’s favourite social application, Instagram. For anyone younger than 25, Instagram is the go-to application with Facebook being dwarfed by the platform’s 69 per cent of children and teens logging into Instagram every month.

Instagram has a suite of privacy settings for children and that means you’ll be able to set up the application cooperate with your family’s internet rules. The latest version of the app has all of its security features within the main profile page’s hamburger button in the top right side. After tapping it or swiping from the right side, you’ll notice settings in the bottom left. Here is where you’ll find the Privacy and Security menu.

Google Play Store - apps banned

Once opened, you’ll be able to switch the Instagram account to private, which we highly recommend. You’ll also find Story settings, which are set to public until the Instagram account is set to private.

Instagram is also littered with location sharing, friend tagging and face detection features which may make it harder to keep your child completely anonymous online. Be sure to let them know that when a friend features them in a post they shouldn’t tag them unless they ask permission first. This way, a friend’s public profile won’t become a page filled with your child’s photos with their name and location tagged in each post.

TikTok

A new comer, the music-based application TikTok has quickly grown to feature over 500 million users in just two years and considering that it’s most popular with younger teens, there’s a good chance your children have an account on TikTok.

Although the TikTok platform doesn’t feature a whole suite of tagging or location sharing features, it still has plenty of comment spaces, direct messages and links back to Instagram, YouTube and other platforms. That means you’ll want to keep your kids from sharing too much on the platform as it’s still able to connect to their main socials.

On TikTok, you’ll find the privacy settings inside the ellipsis on the profile page. After tapping this you’ll find the Privacy and Safety menu where you’ll find settings to disable Duets (a feature where other TikTok’ers can collaborate) and additional settings to block direct messages and filter comments.

We recommend keeping the profile public in this case as TikTok is mainly about finding new users to watch and create content for. We do, however, recommend disabling comments, removing the ability to receive direct messages and taking out Instagram accounts from user bios.

Facebook

On to the world’s largest social network, Facebook has a large suite of hard-to-navigate privacy settings. Beyond the essentials we mentioned above, there is also a whole range of other privacy settings that revolve around internet app permissions, smartphone app permissions and even facial recognition features that are enabled by default.

The best place to start to find Facebook’s settings is to head to your laptop or desktop computer as the smartphone app’s privacy features are rather minimal in comparison. On the main page of the Facebook website you’ll spot the privacy settings in the top right in the form of a drop down. Choose the Settings option and you’ll be taken to Facebook’s entire amount settings and privacy suite.

Once inside, start off with the Privacy option. In here you will find information on who is able to see your child’s social media posts and interact with them – switch this to ‘Friends’ only. Further down, you will notice there are options for who can send your child friend requests – either total strangers or only friends of friends – we highly recommend limiting this to Friends of Friends only. The remaining options should include email addresses, phone number and profile visibility, which should all be switched to friends only.

Facebook App Permissions 

Where things get more complex is within the Apps and Websites pane. This links to the aforementioned data scams we outlined. On this pane you will find all of the mobile applications and websites that have permissions to access your child’s Facebook data.

We recommend selecting and removing all applications in this section unless they’re actively used to keep your child logged into other platforms.

Facebook insists that the only accessible data relates to activity such as likes and comments, however, the Cambridge Analytica scandal and news report outlined that Netflix, Spotify, Amazon, banks and more received private messages and other sensitive data from Facebook.

Snapchat

On to a simpler settings menu, Snapchat has just a few options that have far-reaching effects across the app. If your child is one of the 186 million people who uses Snapchat every day, then there’s a good chance you’ll want to keep a close eye and have some control over what they’re doing and who they can talk to.

The Snapchat privacy settings are within the cog wheel on the main profile section, tap this and you’ll find just a few settings that begin with Who can… and this is where you’ll want to change a few things. We recommend switching all of the settings to My Friends only and also switching of Snap Map. This way your child will be able to use the app freely without being tracked or watched and spoken to by stranger’s accounts.

Twitter  

A little less popular with the youngest users is Twitter, however, if you do have a child or a few children who like to interact with their favourite celebrities, meme accounts or YouTubers on Twitter then there’s a few of things you should be doing.

Twitter’s settings are easily found by swiping left to right on the main Home feed and by tapping on Settings and privacy in the bottom left. This will take you directly to Privacy and safety where you’ll have access to changing the location settings, blocking ad data collection and also removing the ability to receive messages from strangers.

If you’re wanting to set an account to private, scroll back to the top of the Privacy and safety menu and select Protect your Tweets. This will hide all of your child’s tweets from the general public and only allow their followers to see them.

Take Advantage of iOS and Android Parental Restrictions

Moving on to controls and restrictions, parents will be glad to know that across iOS and Android there is a slew of unbreakable restrictions that can implement. These restrictions extend from in-browser controls to the removal of access to certain applications or the entire removal app stores. This will mean that your kids aren’t able to install anything new without you being able to first approve it, but also add your own privacy settings.

We’ll take a look at our parental restrictions for iOS and Android devices below and what we recommend are the safest options.

iOS

Up first comes iOS. Undoubtedly the safest platform for children when it comes to hackers but also parental controls, iOS devices have device-wide restriction features. This means that as a parent you’ll have just about unlimited control over what your children have access to.

To access these restrictions, head over to Settings and select Screen Time and tap on the Content and Privacy Restrictions option. Enable this with the toggle and scroll through all of your restriction options. Choose which abilities you’d like to revoke and disable them.

We recommend revoking the ability to download new App Store applications without permission and also to head into the Content Restrictions pane. Here is where you’ll find restrictions for website content, films and TV shows as well as explicit music. Revoke access to adults-only websites as well as other adult rated applications and content.

Android

Over on Android, these restrictions are a little different from iOS. Depending on the device you have, you may need to install a third-party app to enforce parental restrictions. These apps from the Play Store include Norton Family which costs $109.99 for up to five devices for a year, and provides a whole suite of safety and monitoring features.

You’ll have the ability to limit screen time like iOS, but also to block malicious content as well as keep your child’s eyes on safe, kid-friendly content only. If your child requests access to something you’ve blocked, you’ll be notified and asked whether you’d like to allow or deny access.

If you’re not in the market for a paid version of these parental control apps, there are also free versions to choose from that do a few of the same things. Take a look at Family Link, Screen Time and ESET. These all have a free tier that covers a majority of the activity on Android devices and keeps a close eye on your child’s activities.

Set Up Mac and Windows Child Accounts

Laptops, desktops and other personal computers are where things get a little harder to secure. Desktop operating systems, particularly Windows devices, aren’t as cohesive as smartphones and tablets and this makes them harder to ‘lockdown.’ However, there are still a few solutions and routes you can take to keep your children safe on their laptops too.

Windows Solutions 

On Windows 8 through 10 devices you will have the option to Add a Child user to the computer and this will in turn give you, the adult user, insights into what your children are doing online and the power to manage their movements online. This could mean blocking access to certain websites, keeping an eye on searches as well as limit the amount of time your child can spend on their Windows device.

The window you’ll find these settings in is the Accounts section where you’ll find an Add a family member option. Once you choose to add a new member you’ll be able to select Add a child which will, by default, enable the parents to control features and allow you to make changes to the child’s side of the device.

macOS Solutions

Over on Mac things are just as simple, however there is a little more control offered by the Parental Controls option in System Preferences. You’ll have the ability to ban explicit language or profanities as well as automatic adult-content rejection.

One of the biggest perks of Mac’s Parental Controls is the age setting. You’re able to choose from various age groups from 4 through to 17 and these will have their own preset restrictions that are best suited to each age group.

Restrictions within Parental Controls include website blocking, time limiting, revoked App Store access and more. Just about all safety solutions you’ll need on a desktop device can be enabled through Mac’s Parental Controls.

Provide Browsing Anonymity Through a VPN

If you’re interested in going a few levels deeper into protecting your child’s privacy online, then a VPN is possibly the best option available. When your child is browsing online, not every website they visit will be properly secured and this could mean that cookies or other traceable data sets are leaked to that site to be used in any way they see fit. What this basically means is that the website could get a hold of your child’s browsing history, passwords and more.

Where a VPN comes in is its ability to ‘scramble’ everything your child does on the internet through apps or a browser. In the end, this will create an impenetrable barrier around your child’s internet activities and also keeps them from being located by a local server.

A VPN is also a fantastic option for kid’s smartphones who are browsing on open wifi networks like McDonald’s or a local cafe. These networks are completely open which means anyone with a laptop and the right network tracing program can quite literally look at everything your child is sending or receiving in real time. This can include messages, images, website links and more, which is daunting. However, a VPN, as we mentioned above, will completely scramble all of the in and outgoing data from your child’s smartphone, leaving it protected and for their eyes only.

The Takeaway

At the end of the day, protecting children’s privacy online is incredibly important and is about more than just stopping them from being approached by scammers or embarrassing themselves in photos. If you’re allowing your kids to browse without any security protocols in place, you’re leaving them to the technology giants. This virtually gives Google, Facebook and Instagram the power to ‘parent’ your children and show them their own versions of right from wrong.

As a parent, you know how easily influenced and impulsive your children can be. If they’re being shown thousands of targeted ads, news posts and videos all day, there’s the threat of them being moulded into the perfect consumers for Google and Facebook’s own agenda.

Social anxiety and depression are also very real worries too. If you can’t be sure that your kids aren’t absorbing themselves into Instagram’s impossible flawless influencers, then consider putting limits on screen time and let them know that not everyone looks like the people they see online. We all know of the effects Instagram has on mental health and it should be a top priority to inform your kids of what’s real and what isn’t.

Of course, we’re heading into the 2020s soon and learning to be immersed day and night in technology is essential to operate effectively in modern society, but it’s still so important to do everything in your power to protect your kids online.

 


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