Growing up online

Raising children with a healthy digital presence is top of mind for parents these days. Sonia Mendes explains how to help kids establish a responsible digital identity

Parents love sharing about their kids. In addition to being integral members of our families, they’re just so darn cute!

Naturally, parents want to capture and share those quintessential childhood moments – like when that spirited, dimpled toddler ditches her diaper and runs away from mom – laughing over her shoulder and showing her bare bum to the camera.

But parents need to think twice before clicking “share” with such images and personal information on social networks, says Matthew Johnson, director of education for MediaSmarts, a Canadian not-for-profit charitable organization focused on digital and media literacy.

“When kids are little, they do very funny things – and it’s tempting to post these things,” says Johnson. “But there’s a visceral concern we need to remember – the possibility of future embarrassment for our kids.

“Not only can parents posting such photos become absolutely mortifying to a child who sees it later, it also sets a bad example. It’s important that parents model the kinds of decision-making they want their kids to have.”

That same cautionary approach is advised for those uber-keen, tech-savvy parents who decide to begin building their child’s digital presence for them. Last year, the New York Times ran a feature piece about a growing trend of parents who registered their babies for web urls, pages, Instagram feeds, Twitter handles, Tumblr accounts and email accounts on Yahoo and Gmail – all within hours of their birth.

While Johnson says he hasn’t seen such an extreme trend north of the border, he points out that all parents should bear privacy issues in mind – no matter what the child’s age.

“Advertising and data are certainly an issue,” says Johnson. “For online data collectors, their ideal is to have a profile that tracks you between your devices.”

He recalls reading a report that indicated apps for kids have been shown to have more tracking software than apps for adults.

“They [kids] are seen as a long-term investment,” says Johnson. “If you’re giving data brokers information about your child’s age and gender, that will provide them with ways to deliver advertising – particularly since kids don’t always have the critical ability to distinguish when they’re being advertised to.”

Even parents who remain comparatively private – being careful not to post kids’ photos on social media, for example – will eventually come up against issues surrounding their child’s digital identity. Sooner or later, kids themselves will start asking for their own email addresses and Facebook accounts. But how young is too young for a digital identity?

While Johnson won’t offer a magic number, he suggests parents should link increased online freedom with a child’s developing empathy and ethical thinking.

“The best approach is to gradually reduce supervision and give your child more and more responsibility as they get older – and as they show you their empathy and ethical thinking,” says Johnson.

With young kids, he explains, you want to be right there with them; there’s no foolproof way of controlling what comes up on video sites and game sites.

“Even in the walled gardens, there are things to be concerned about – gender stereotyping, inappropriate ads,” he warns. “You want to curate the experience; if you can’t preview things, at least be in the room and be available. And make sure if there’s a problem, your kids know that they can come to you.”

Of utmost importance is for parents to have conversations with their kids – starting from an early age – about the idea of privacy and that privacy has value, he emphasizes.

MediaSmarts offers an online game, Privacy Pirates (see sidebar), that works well as an interactive learning tool for children ages five to seven.

As kids get older, says Johnson, you can allow them to begin using kid-oriented spaces on their own. Have conversations around things like passwords, and help them set up their own account. Johnson recommends parents keep a Password Piggy Bank – a slip of paper with their child’s password information, hidden inside an old-fashioned piggy bank.

“It’s a tactile reminder that you’re giving them their privacy, but that you still reserve the right to step in if you’re concerned,” says Johnson.

Despite the “horror stories” of kids’ online issues that often make news headlines, Johnson suggests parents take a tempered approach towards their children’s online activities.

“Situations such as cyberbullying and sexting are actually much less common than we think,” he says, adding that through constant worry and trying to protect our kids from every risk, we prevent them from exploring opportunities.

“At some point, they will be using digital devices on their own,” says Johnson. “The role of parents is to equip them with judgement and critical thinking skills, but we have to accept that if we want our kids to have good privacy habits, we need to respect their privacy – while always letting them know they can come to us.

“Ultimately, they have the right to influence the value of their community with their own digital presence.”

Help kids navigate the online world

MediaSmarts supports adults with information and tools to help children and teens develop the critical thinking skills for interacting safely online. Check out their free online tutorials, tip sheets and games.

Tutorials & tip sheets for parents

• Tutorial – Raising Ethical Kids for a Networked World
• Tutorial – Parenting the Digital Generation
• Tip sheet – Promoting Ethical Behaviours With Your Kids
• Tip sheet – Teaching Your Children Safe Surfing Habits

Games & tip sheets for kids
• Tip sheet – Building Your Brand
• Tip sheet – Think Before Your Share
• Game – Privacy Pirates
• Game – Privacy Playground: The First Adventure of the Three Cyberpigs

Photo: © racorn