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Maintaining Privacy in a Sea of Selfies

Chief Community & Safety Officer, MindCandy.com

Rebecca Newton, MindCandy.com

Kids love to express themselves  – on their own or in a group, they thrive on self-expression.  They’ll draw, talk, sing, dance, move, build and participate in anything creative.

Where better than the online world to express themselves?  It provides a global platform for collaboration and allows even the shyest of kids to participate in digital mob merriment and, sometimes, mayhem.


Digital Self-Expression

Just what is it that kids are up to online? In a word, Selfies. In the 1980s and 90s we had ‘Glamour Shots’  (and possibly too many of them). Since the big hand hit 12am on January 1st 2000 and brought us in to the 21st century, a highly popular method of self-expression has emerged in the ‘Selfie.’ Selfies have most definitely found their place in digital posterity. On a daily basis, I witness pretty much every kid (and teen and adult and some canines) publishing a Selfie.

As an example, here’s a photo of my one-year-old grandson, who is too young to create his own Selfie, or so I assume. His siblings collaborated on the ‘Selfie’ using an app on their parents’ device, and the family posted it straightaway on Facebook. I was thrilled when it popped up in my Facebook newsfeed and grabbed within minutes. And here I am, one month later, using it in a public post. A public post about privacy, in fact. Within seconds, downloaded from Facebook by me (his ‘Grammy’), then republished by myself within a month. (Photo used by permission.)

Trust and Digital Publishing

Entertaining as the Selfie may be, there is a more serious side to instant publishing to consider. As adults we know that once we press the ‘send’ button, that’s it. We will have very little control over what we’ve just published. But kids are open books and share monsters. They have trusting hearts and trending heads  — if everyone else is doing it, they’re not going to be left standing on the sidelines watching.

Instant trust and instant publishing are very good reasons as to why privacy matters. There’s no point in trying to stop the Selfie train. It left the station a few years back. But there is a point in making sure parents of kids under 13, per the FTC’s COPPA 2.0 regulation, understand they have a choice in what, how and where their kids publish content online. The FTC requires app and site developers (who target kids or have ‘actual knowledge’ of kids using their app or site) to obtain verified parental consent (VPC) for every US citizen under 13 if the site or app collects or allows the disclosure of personally identifying information (PII) from the child. That’s the thumbnail version. If you’re desperate for legalese and much of it, you can read all about COPPA here. For the Wikipedia version, click here.


That Pesky Privacy Thing

In response to the *COPPA 2.0 verified parental consent (VPC) requirement, industry has done exactly what the FTC had hoped and developed technology to serve as the conduit between website operators and parents.

Age verification systems are possibly the “PayPal ™ solution” to a complicated regulation that has the best of intentions but has ended up creating a privacy conundrum — all in the name of protecting privacy.  That’s a subject worth 1000 blogs, another time, another place. The bottom line is, the regulation is in effect so we must find a way to work with it if we want to

  • Provide creative and fun digital apps, games and products for kids
  • Make a living doing the above

5 Minutes for Reassurance

It’s a parent or guardian’s right to understand who’s tracking your child (third party ad vendors, for instance), how they’re tracking your child (behavioral advertising), and what they’re doing with the tracked information (selling it? Pushing behavioral ads to your kids? Or, to be fair, simply nothing). Developers and web operators have a responsibility to inform a site user, regardless of their age, as to what they’re going to do with the data they collect. We should expect to receive information allowing us to make knowledgeable digital choices.  This is what the FTC wants to accomplish with the COPPA rule.

Parental consent mechanisms or systems are the most expedient way to achieve the above. We sometimes fear the unknown and withhold consent with our right hand while our left hand clicks “AGREE” without reading 12 pages of legalese.  The web industry initially experienced fear about online banking, online purchasing, PayPal and many other online systems that are now part of our every day lives (including Selfies).  The VPC systems are coming to an app or web page near you, and they’re coming soon. I think we’d all be in agreement that our children’s or grandchildren’s digital privacy is worth 5 minutes of our time giving consent to a trusted online mechanism (third party) that will collect so SO very much less information than Google, Facebook, or Amazon collects about us all day, every day.  Let’s keep our fingers crossed that industry solutions will be user-friendly, quick, and data-safe. I believe they can and will be so.

In the meantime, I’m going to Google (verb) ‘canine selfies ‘and check Facebook for my grandson’s latest sibling-generated Selfie!


Rebecca Newton is the Chief Community and Safety Officer at MindCandy.com, a family digital entertainment company based in London, England. She lives in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, where she has been a professional musician by night for over 3 decades. She has an affinity for kids, canines and technology.


Twitter: @RebeccaNewton

Google +RebeccaNewton

Some resources on COPPA and Privacy

Why Your Child’s Privacy Matters Online: Five Things You Can Do To Help Your Child Protect Their Privacy

Mary Kay

Mary Kay Hoal Yoursphere

Your child’s privacy matters online for the very same reason their privacy matters offline: they’re children and teens and their private and personal information should remain private, personal, and protected. Any information shared about them, or by them, should be shared with parental awareness, involvement, and consent.

Offline your child or teen doesn’t stand on a street corner distributing personal information or announce to strangers where they’ll be after school. They don’t give out their phone number to people at the grocery store. Their exact physical location isn’t track-able by those who don’t know them.

Online however, this isn’t the case. Children and teens using apps like Instagram, Facebook, Ask.fm, Omegele, or MeetMe are requested to provide information that personally identifies themselves as part of the registration process. Different sites have different privacy policies but some start your child’s account with default settings that allow anyone to see the information your child provided. On sites where privacy settings have to be turned on manually, unless you are involved in your child’s social media presence, your child may not know how easily their personal information can be accessed, putting them right on that virtual street corner.

You may have one or two of these apps yourself but, as an adult, you are more capable of recognizing whom you should not be sharing information with and if someone sends you adult material or inappropriate messages you are not going to be affected the same way a child would be. The fact of the matter is that while the internet and social media are incredibly useful tools, it is also not a place for a child to be allowed to roam free without an involved parent or technical supervision.

Assuming you’ve set up any kind of social media account before, you already know how easy it is to find personal information online. There doesn’t seem to be any aspect of our life you aren’t requested to provide as part of your account! You also know that the information available on social media sites is not the kind of information you would want your child giving out to strangers. But what can you do to ensure that your child has a safe online experience? Well here’s a list of the top five simple things you can do to take control of your child’s online privacy:

1. Talk to your child, (including your younger children), and let them know what you’ve learned. It’s important you establish a dialogue about online privacy and what you can do as a family to protect it. Use words and phrases like, “Your privacy matters, both online and off.” Talk to them about the importance of applying common sense standards to what they share about themselves online.

2. Know the basics. These four things about your child constitute private online information about them:

  • Pictures of themselves
  • Their email
  • Their first name in combination with their last name.
  • Their phone number
  • Birth dates are OK to be requested, because they allow a website, game or app to determine if your child is old enough to use the service or if special privacy safeguards should be administered to their account but should never be shared outside of the initial setup of their account. Be sure to tell your children that if someone messages them asking how old they are, they are not to answer them.

3. If your child is 12 or younger and they’re using Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, Ask.fm (or any other app, website or game that requires them to be 13 or older), they shouldn’t be. Why?

  • They’ve broken the app or website’s terms of service.  (It’s a clear sign an app or game isn’t meant for your child or young teen when they’re forced to lie about their age. Do you allow your child to lie about their age anywhere else to get something they want? Of course not. The same standards should always apply online and on smart phones.)
  • Your child 12 or younger has provided and shared private information about themselves (i.e. pictures of themselves, their first and last name, their email address, their phone number, etc.) that they are not legally allowed to share unless you have provided consent.
  • Because these sites and apps are meant for an older audience, even with a profile set to private, their information is being taken, bought, sold, tracked, and used.
  • Mainstream apps and social networks are mainstream and therefore meant for the general audience. Content is often age-inappropriate and adult-intended and not meant for you child or young teen’s consumption.

4. Social media is a mainstream part of life, and is the social-center of your child’s digital life. It’s not a matter of if, but a matter of when your child wants to use social media. As parents (and I myself am a parent of five, so I know this to be very true), it’s not about saying “no” to social media. It’s about say yes to age-appropriate, social media that makes privacy a priority.  There are social apps and websites like Yoursphere made specifically for your child and teen. Think of Yoursphere as the “Nickelodeon” or “Cartoon Network” of social media. Yoursphere’s content is created by kids and teens. Yoursphere understands that your child’s online privacy matters and has taken common sense steps to help parents be digitally aware, educated and involved in their child’s social media experience. Moreover, Yoursphere complies with the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA), which means we involve you, and ask you, to provide your consent for your child to post and share in the community. You also have access to the content your child posts. The vast majority of apps and website choose not to bother with COPPA. It’s much easier to turn a blind eye to the children using their service than protecting their privacy.

5. Be proactive.  Take steps to be in charge of making sure your family has a healthy digital experience.  You can do this by becoming a digitally aware, digitally educated and digitally involved parent.

For your children:

  • They shouldn’t use their first and last name, together, in social media. It’s preferable to use a screen name, but if they’re not interested, then just their first name.
  • Profiles should always be set to private. (At Yoursphere, there’s not an option to make a profile public.)
  • Turn the location services off on their smart phones. This will help keep their real-world whereabouts private
  • Don’t be their friend in social media; know their passwords instead. Since most apps and websites don’t provide a login for parents to see the content their child has posted, logging in provides the full view of their activities.
  • Limit their number of friends to those they truly know in real life. Statistically, the average teen has over 300 online friends and only knows 75% of them in real life. That means 75 strangers (and all their friends on their friends list) are keeping up with what your child is doing.
  • Activate their Yoursphere membership online or in the app store.

For you, free information sources are available to empower you with the tools and information you need to make this a reality:

Your child’s online privacy matters; having a healthy and age-appropriate social media experience matters. It all starts with you: educating yourself and then sharing your knowledge with your children. You will make a difference.

Want to learn more? Listen to Mary Kay interviewed on PRIVO’s Parenting Matters radio show. Click here to listen!

Mary Kay Hoal is a nationally recognized expert on youth social media and digital safety. She is the founder and president of Yoursphere Media Inc., which focuses on the family and publishes the award-winning youth social network Yoursphere. Mary Kay also provides parents with tools and information to help them live healthy digital lives at YoursphereForParents.com. She has been profiled on CNN, BBC, E!, Fox & Friends, TIME, Lifetime TV and many others. Mary Kay is a contributor to ABC’s 20/20 as their family digital-safety expert. For more information visit www.marykayhoal.com.