Kids, privacy and social media

Some parents post photographs and potentially sensitive information about their children to social networking sites, while others log into their children’s social media and snoop on their activities. ESET Ireland looks into the issues of your kids’ privacy and security.

Most parents don’t think of posting pictures of their children on Facebook as any different to showing them to friends and relatives in the bar or at a family dinner: after all, they probably see it as being for the benefit of much the same people, only reaching more people.  There are at least two related problems with a digital footprint, as compared to the non-virtual world. First, physical photographs are in some sense unique objects. You put a photo back in your wallet or purse and, as far as other people are concerned, it’s gone. Put it on the web/social media and you lose control over it. It’s not just your friends and relatives who see it, it’s also available to their friends/contacts and even complete strangers. And second, the digital world may seem transient because it’s ‘just’ bits and bytes pushed through a wire, but digital data is actually extraordinarily persistent. Taking a site down or deleting an email is rarely a guarantee that the offending object no longer exists.

It is worth remembering that in 82% of online sex crimes against minors, the offender used the victim’s social networking site to gain information about the victim’s likes and dislikes and 65% of online sex offenders used the victim’s social networking site to gain home and school information about the victim. So parents could unknowingly be putting their children at risk themselves.

But then there’s the other side of the coin. Two thirds of parents spy “regularly” on children’s social media accounts, said a survey by VoucherCloud of 2,105 UK parents regarding the social media use of children aged 13-16.

  • 55% of parents made sure they knew the passwords used by their children to social network sites and 31% signed into such accounts on a regular basis without the child’s knowledge.
  • 45% of the parents claimed to know their child/children’s email password, whilst 36% knew their social media login details for at least one of their profiles.

Presumably a proportion of this ‘snooping’ is out of a concern for the child’s safety rather than curiosity and an urge to control, and that can certainly be seen as part of the parental role. But even accepting that argument, when does it become an unacceptable invasion of privacy? Many teenagers and not a few parents would probably think that minors are entitled to a measure of privacy long before the age of majority. And that if a parent feels compelled to monitor from time to time, all parties may be more comfortable if the possibility of occasional checking is at least openly discussed.

So when and if children’s photographs and identity-related data are posted by their parents while they’re still minors, what difference will it make to them when they reach the age where they can decide for themselves whether they want a digital presence at all? The children of today seem to be eager to use technology and participate interactively in game-play and some form of social media from an early age. Establish rules about when it is okay to:

  • Send or post photos
  • Give contact or identifying information for themselves or family members

Let kids know it is best to:

  • Socialize online only with kids they know in real life
  • Avoid personal discussions with strangers online, especially conversations involving sex, violence, and illegal activities

As older kids become eligible for social networking sites, they may wish to meet in person some people that they have met online. It is important that a parent or guardian accompanies the teen to any first meeting, to determine whether the situation is safe and age-appropriate. The age at which they should be allowed and even encouraged to do so, though, is still very much a parental decision.

by Urban Schrott & David Harley, ESET

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