The other day, I took my 8-year-old son to a birthday party at an indoor trampoline gym. Usually, he and his friends run around like wild monkeys the whole time we're at those kinds of places, but midway through the party, I spotted a group of five boys standing in a huddle with their heads down. I went closer to inspect and realized they were focused on an iPhone. This wasn't a huge surprise, but what came next was. When I told the boy holding the device to give it back to his mom so they could all go back to playing, the kids chimed back in unison: "It's his!"
I walked away a bit stunned. I knew kids were getting their first phones at younger and younger ages. But I figured I still had a few years before I had to start worrying about it, and I certainly wasn't looking forward to hearing my son tell me why I was a terrible parent for not letting him have a phone like the rest of his friends. Even though I don't plan to give him his own device anytime soon, it hit me that my child will almost certainly be able to access the internet now without my supervision. As a lawyer specializing in online privacy, I know how easy it is for adults to get into trouble online. How would my 8-year-old child fare?
Inevitably, my mind turned to worst-case scenarios: hackers gaining access to his email or game account passwords or predators tracking where we live and the path he takes to school in the morning. Pretty soon, I found myself having a full-blown anxiety attack next to the foam ball pit.
As parents and teachers of the first generation of humans growing up in an ever-present online world, we're all blindly feeling our way forward. But here are five steps we've taken in our house that help calm (though not fully resolve) my worst fears:
1. Don't give kids access to your passwords.
This is easier to accomplish in theory than practice. It's tempting to save the mental effort of keeping track of different passwords by storing them in our computer keychain so they automatically pop up when we visit sites like Amazon or Facebook. But kids are so digitally savvy now, they can easily use those same tools to gain access to those sites and others when we're not aware.
2. Use two-factor authentication.
Two-factor authentication builds an extra step into the log-in process, such as a text or email you must use to reconfirm your identity. It makes it harder for hackers to attack your accounts and reduces the risk of fraud. This is also another barrier to keep kids from logging on. I now sign up for two-factor authentication on all my devices, and when we finally decide it's appropriate for our kids to have their own devices, I will walk them through the process as well.
3. Explain when it's OK to "lie" online.
This might sound counterintuitive, as we all want our kids to be truthful. But it's important to teach them when to keep their private information private. For instance, I tell my kids never to lie about their ages when they're signing up for new accounts. Age gates on sites are designed to protect them from inappropriate content. On the other hand, if they're playing an online game with a stranger and that person starts asking them personal questions such as where they live, what school they go to, or if they're home alone, I want my kid to lie and cut off the conversation. I'm adamant with my kids that they should never share any information about our family or themselves with anyone who isn't a friend they know in real life.
4. "Every step you take, every move you make, I’ll be watching you."
Remember that '80s song? It’s the perfect way to explain to kids the concept that everything they do online leaves a trail. As a privacy lawyer, I tend to get a bit freaked out by the idea that corporations are creating digital versions of my kids that could one day cause them serious discomfort, humiliation, or, even worse, harm. I use this fear to my advantage as a parent and explain to my kids that every site they visit, every purchase they make, and every ad they click on is tracked. I have consciously avoided showing my kids how to delete their search histories or cookies (because checking these allows me to keep track of the sites they've visited), but I have made them aware of how much their activity is monitored by inviting them to look at the ads they see when they're logged in to their email or other accounts. Another fun experiment is to let them Google their names and see what information and pictures come up. Hopefully nothing appears, but you might be surprised at the results.
5. Model responsible online behavior.
We all know that the best way our kids learn is by watching us, so I try to exemplify good online practices when I use my devices and accounts. For instance, I think carefully about what I post on Facebook, especially when it involves pictures of my kids or their friends. Before I upload a picture of my kids making goofy faces in the bathtub, I ask myself if this is something I would have felt comfortable with my own parents sharing with their friends when I was a kid. If the answer is no, I don't post the picture. Remember that everything you post about your kids adds to the record in the sky kept about who they are -- and when they grow up, you don't want that version of their identity to limit the possibilities in front of them in any way.