4 Ways to Protect Your Kids Online

4 Ways to Protect Your Kids Online

By Erika Stalder

Just this summer, mobile apps developer Broken Thumbs Apps was found guilty of violating the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA). The company had illegally collected -- without prior parental consent -- and disclosed personal information of tens of thousands of children age 13 and younger.

This isn’t an isolated case. With 93 percent of youth online, according to the Pew Research Center’s Internet and American Life Project, parents are right to be concerned about their kids’ online privacy. If you’re one of them, here’s what you can do:

1. Get educated and start monitoring.
The facts:
Ten percent of online users are children (2 to 11 years), according to Nielsen. But only 32 percent of parents monitor their kids’ online activities, says a SocialShield and comScore study.
What to do: Stay clued in to the latest Facebook privacy setting options to limit your kids’ risk of being tracked down by a perpetrator. (It takes just a few data points, like a name, school or parent’s job to physically locate someone.) Check with your state about its online and privacy programs that help teach adults and kids. Or go to Common Sense Media, which offers online privacy and safety tip sheets (for parents of elementary school, middle school and high school students), along with primers on social networking, gaming and family media management.

Additionally, the Federal Trade Commission has a comprehensive guide to online life, Living Life Online.” It covers privacy issues, sexting and how to share online.

On the mobile front, services like Code9 Mobile allow parents to monitor their kids’ mobile activity by setting curfews for the phone to disable (letting only preapproved callers get through) and by accessing an online report of their kids’ mobile usage, including red flags for privacy violations, like one-sided messages and unknown contacts.

2. School your kids.
The facts: In the past year, 5 million U.S. households have been exposed to some type of abuse thanks to Facebook use, from identity theft to bullying.
What to do: Just because your child needs to be 13 to open a Facebook account doesn’t mean their online privacy education can’t start any earlier. Educate your kids with games like the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children’s “Stop That Post” and “Tad’s Profile Panic.” Aimed at tweens 8 to 12 years old, these games teach kids what information to keep private. Also check out additional games, tools and resources for teens, children, parents and educators.

3. Help manage your kids’ privacy settings.
The facts:
An estimated 7.5 million children younger than 13 have illegally opened Facebook accounts, many of which are unsupervised.
What to do:
Help your kids set up their Facebook account. About 1 in 5 adult Facebook users say they don’t utilize the network’s privacy controls, according to Consumer Reports. But staying up-to-date with the latest privacy changes is key, as it can prevent your kid from falling prey to identity theft, sex offenders or plain bad judgment when it comes to oversharing.

To start, make sure you and your teen don’t post full birthdays; omit the years you were born to help prevent identity theft. Have your teen “friend” you so you can see what she is posting, and opt out of Instant Personalization, which allows sites to link to your account and share its info with all your friends. To keep up on the latest best practices for managing Facebook privacy settings, search “Manage Facebook settings” and “Privacy.”

4. Reach out to lawmakers.
The facts: An investigation conducted by The Wall Street Journal found that the top 50 children’s websites install 30 percent more tracking technologies than do the top 50 sites for adults.
What to do: Congressmen Edward J. Markey of Massachusetts and Joe Barton of Texas are working to pass the Do Not Track Kids Act of 2011, which would update COPPA to include technologies, like mobile apps, that didn’t exist when the 1998 bill was signed into law. It would also establish new protection in the collection, use, disclosure and storage of kids’ personal information. For example, it includes creating an “Eraser Button” for parents and children, which would require companies to permit users to eliminate publicly available personal information when “technologically feasible.”

Learn more about the bill at DoNotTrackKids.org . And if you support it, write to your local policymakers and tell them how you’d like your child’s privacy protected online.

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Erika Stalder has written about technology for Gizmodo.com, Wired.com and Wired magazine. The author of five nonfiction books for teens, she also pens a teen advice column on ABCFamily.com.