The Balance Between Protecting our Children and Respecting Their Privacy

BlogHer Original Post

Last week, the news broke about a Philadelphia-area school district that has been accused of misusing technology to spy on a student at home.

As @vodkamom reported on Twitter and here on the BlogHer Family Connections forum:

"The case hinges on the fact that the school district became aware of inappropriate behavior by a student after it claims to have captured that behavior via a webcam on the laptop." 

The mind boggles. The privacy implications are enormous, and while I think we should all be extra-vigilant about what is going on with our kids and technology at school, I know many other writers will be tackling this subject. For example, read the excellent summary of the issues by Leslie Madsen Brooks here on BlogHer.

So I want to talk about something a little different. I want you to think about how you balance your desire to protect your children -- online and off -- with respecting their privacy. 

It's something I think about a lot these days. At almost 10, my son is quickly approaching the teen years and intermittently asserts his need for privacy. So I knock before I enter and try to respect his new boundaries, as my own mother did mine.

Online, though? That's a bit more scary, and I know more about just how scary than most people. In a previous life, I was general manager of Cyber Patrol, one of the first Internet filtering products. We were among the first to embrace the concept of parental choice. A parent's right to decide the best approach to protecting their own children online. No one size fits all. 

Sounds good. In theory. How can we put it into practice? Strike that delicate balance between safety and privacy? Here's my take. YMMV (your mileage may vary).

No technology is going to fully protect our children from the seamier side of technology. Assuming that some software product is the magic bullet of protection ... well, you know what happens when we assume. 

Step One: The first step is education. As the song goes, teach your children well. From the earliest age, we've got to give them tools they can use to be smart and safe when they go online. And don't think you are doing your kids any favors by not allowing them to go online. You're just delaying the inevitable and possibly making it harder to teach the important lessons. I know my kid was a lot more malleable at five than he is now. But safe behavior is ingrained, so at least I don't have to worry about that particular rebellion. 

Here's my short syllabus for teaching your kids about safe online behavior and protecting their privacy. Start early and repeat often. Make sure you teach your child that:

Lesson 1: The Internet is a terrific resource and a fun place to play. You can even chat with your friends and send e-mail to Grandma.

Encourage your child to share the things she is doing online with you from the very beginning. Be enthusiastic, even if the last thing you want to do is watch him play some game on Webkinz. You will reap the benefits of this down the line when sharing is part of your child's online experience. 

Lesson 2: While she may be in your living room, the Internet is not. Be safe. Protect your privacy by not giving out personal information like your name or address.

As your child gets older, add fraud awareness: If an offer sounds too good to be true, it probably is. No one is going to mail you a million dollars just because you are nice. 

Lesson 3: Sometimes people aren't nice to each other. In the real world and online. If someone bullies you. tell me. Don't be a bully yourself. 

Lesson 4: If you run into content online that makes you uncomfortable or sad, tell me so we can talk about it. I won't get mad, and you'll still be allowed to go online, but it is important to me that you feel good about going online. 

Lesson 5: The computer stays in a public family space. Period. And walk the talk yourself. Don't put your computer in your bedroom either.  

Lesson 6: Safety first. Texting while driving is bad practice. Don't do it, and don't get into a car with someone who is.

That means you too, Mom/Dad. In fact, go sign the pledge at Mom Sends the Msg today. 

Step Two: Make your own decision about filtering tools, often referred to as parental control software. They do help prevent the accidental porn stop (whitehouse.com is NOT where the Obamas live), but they are not infallible.

There are filters that block out content, like Cyber Patrol. There are white list or walled garden products that let kids wander in a safe neighborhood. There are communities for kids with structured play and safe chat like Club Penguin and social communities suitable for tweens like Yoursphere. None of them is perfect, but one of them might be perfect for you.

If you are in the mood for some not-so-light reading on the subject, the Progress and Freedom Foundation publishes a survey of parental control tools and methods

Step Three: This is as much about you as it is about your children. Not only do you have to teach your kids how to protect their privacy, but also you have to school yourself to respect theirs. That means your older kids don't have to share everything they do online. You have to trust that you've laid a strong enough foundation that they aren't downloading porn and bullying small children in virtual street corners. If you are really lucky, they'll still want to share what they discover with you. 

Now, I can hear the questions already. What if you have cause to believe that there is something wrong that your tween or teen isn't telling you? Cyberbullying is probably more of a problem than porn sites and predators for most teens. Not to downplay the predation problem, but most kids will run into one or more bullies as they grow up. Luckily, the same cannot be said for predators. 

I honestly believe that there is no one right way to handle such a concern. We will all make different choices. I don't think I would ever read my son's e-mail or Facebook account (once he's old enough for one) without his permission, but he's only 9, going on 10. Will I feel differently when he's 15 and no longer shows me everything anyway? I don't think so, but I don't know so. 

I won't until we get there. And that's okay. In the end, we've just got to make it up as we go along.

So far, however, we are running filter-free, and I'm holding firm on no Facebook account until he is 13. He's found a couple YouTube videos that don't thrill me, particularly the Clone Trooper doing the bump and grind (I still can't figure out why he thinks that is so funny) but nothing dreadful.

What about you? How are you keeping your kids safe online while respecting their privacy and need for independence? Discuss it here or in the Family Connections group.

Susan Getgood is a marketing and social media consultant. She blogs professionally at Marketing Roadmaps and also writes a personal blog Snapshot Chronicles and a family travel blog Snapshot Chronicles Roadtrip. She is a co-founder of BlogwithIntegrity.com, and is currently writing Professional Blogging for Dummies (Wiley, July 2010).

 

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