Tips & Advice

A comprehensive checklist for privacy-savvy parents

Sander van Hezik, 24 July 2020

Safety starts at home

We often teach our children the lessons that we learned ourselves when we were little...

  • Look both ways before crossing the street.
  • Don't talk to strangers.
  • Wash your hands before eating (true these days now more than ever).

Most of these lessons are about protecting our kids. But today as parents, we have a vast new world to explain and protect our kids fromone that our parents never had to worry about: The internet.

Kids today are growing up connected to the internet from the moment they're born think about the many newborn baby photos you've seen on social media. Anyone who's watched a toddler navigate an iPad or browse YouTube videos understands just how innately kids click into devices. And teenagers today wouldn't be caught dead without a smartphone. 

It’s a constant emotional battle for many of us. One one hand, we might wish we could go back to simpler times, ditch social media, even toss our smartphones into the bin. On the other hand, we realize it’s our duty as parents to step up to the challenges we face today in order to protect our children from an ever changing technological world.

So how exactly do we protect our kid's online privacy? From a team that spent the past three years building what is now Avast Secure Browser, a browser with privacy and security at its core, here’s what we do in our own homes and what we recommend to our friends...

1. Be informed

First things first: We should always be educating ourselves. We can't teach our kids about online privacy if we don't know about it! The majority of American adults are woefully uninformed about online privacy, so we should approach this challenge as if we don't know as much as we shouldand that our kids as they grow will try every trick in the book to find ways around the things that we do know. I’m reminded of that scene from Jurassic Park where Robert Muldoon, the park’s game warden describes the velociraptor’s mischievous behavior...

“They never attack the same place twice. They were testing the fence for weaknesses, systematically. They remember.” - Jurassic Park

Our children really are the joy and light in our lives. Oh, but they can still be little terrors sometimes, can’t they?!

Here's a list of basic online privacy terms we should all be familiar with. Even if you think you know what they mean, do a quick search to make sure you're up to date:

  • Phishing 
  • App permissions 
  • Location tracking 
  • VPN 
  • Public Wi-Fi
  • Metadata
  • Anti-virus
  • Sexting
  • Social media privacy settings
  • Cybersecurity
  • Malware

2. Lead by example

As with anything else with parenting, our actions speak louder than our words. If our kids see that we're sharing pictures of them without their permission, for example, then why would they ask to share pictures of others? Or ask others not to share pictures of them?

Take a parental timeout to really assess your own online habits. Where can you be better about privacy? Maybe it’s time to update your passwords or review your privacy settings on social media sites like Facebook and Instagram.

When we find areas that can use improvement, it’s good to turn that into a teachable moment with our kids. They'll see that we’re serious about online privacy and it will reinforce the lessons we've been teaching them. 

3. Explain what personal information is

The definition of personal information changes based on the age of your child. Young children should know as soon as they're online to never share their full name, address, or phone number with someone who has contacted them via the internet. Older children and teenagers need to have conversations about sexting (see below), photo sharing in general, social security numbers, and mobile phone numbers.

4. Talk about online stranger danger

Your kids probably know not to talk to strangers on the street. They should also know not to talk to strangers online. Set aside time to explain to them that sometimes grown ups might want to be "friends" on social media, and to talk to them about why it's not a good idea to be friends with those people. Discuss the different ways a stranger may reach out - direct messages, following them on Instagram or Snapchat, chat rooms, etc. and work out a plan for what your kid can do when and if that happens. 

5. Install anti-virus programs on all devices

A lot of the items on this list focus on talking with our kids about actions they can take, but there are actions we can take behind the scenes as well. Install an anti-virus program on all of your devices, from phones to tablets to computers, and make sure they’re up to date! Our kids are as likely (if not more likely) to click on sketchy links as we are, so let’s make sure our devices are protected if they do.

6. Lock down YouTube

Kids love YouTube - but not everything on YouTube is right for kids. Luckily, YouTube now offers "Restricted Mode," which filters out kid-inappropriate content. On your desktop or laptop computer, it’s at the bottom of the screen, while on apps it's under Settings on the top right.

7. Lock down any gaming systems

Gaming systems are connected to the internet now, too, so if your kid is using the Wii or even just has access to it, maybe when you're not home make sure that you have the proper settings enabled for restricted access. You can find out about the options that are available for your particular gaming system by going to the device's website or doing a search online.

8. Give your kids their own accounts

If you regularly hand over your phone or tablet to your kid (and how many parents don't these days?), create an account specifically for them. This allows you to make sure all of the privacy settings are correct, without having to deal with them yourself. It also protects your personal stuff from texts to photos to emails from any curious eyes.

9. Set privacy settings on social media

If your child already has any social media accounts, take the time to sit down with them and go through their privacy settings. Explain why it's a good idea to keep access to their accounts restricted - and talk a little about what can happen if they don't. This is a good opportunity to review your own privacy settings, too, and set an example of good online privacy practices.

10. Set expectations around sharing

As parents, we have to set limits all the time and sharing online is no exception. Sit down and work out what you think is okay and not okay for your kid to share online. Then, sit down with them and have a conversation about what those things are. Maybe you're not okay with photos with people's faces in them. Maybe you're fine with them using their full name, but not if they're also sharing locations. Also consider what they might be sharing in "private" messages with their friends - and explain that no messages are truly private. And be on the lookout for the “I know” response from your kid. That’s a great chance to let them show off how much they really do know!

11. Talk about sexting

Sending explicit images is a part of how many people date, but it's not a good idea for teenagers - even if they're tempted. When your kid starts dating, have conversations about private images. Talk about how they can be used against you, both by the person who receives them and others. Make sure your kid knows that a.) nothing on the internet is truly private, b.) explicit images can be shared and often are, and c.) there may be legal repercussions for taking and sharing those types of images. The internet is like a giant copy machine that never stops running. Once something is out there, it’s virtually impossible to remove it from the internet.

12. Check app permissions - and explain why

While some of the big tech companies are cracking down on unnecessary app permissions - i.e. ones that collect data they don't need in order to sell it to third parties, rather than to actually help their app run properly - there are still plenty of apps that are tracking more than you might realize at a glance.

Sit down with your kid and check the app permissions on their phone. Show them where to find app permissions and talk about how to distinguish which ones are legitimate and which ones aren't. Let them decide with you which apps can stay and which need to go because they're crossing the privacy line. 

13. Utilize screen pinning

Did you know that you can lock in an app so that your kid can't move away from it? So, for example, if there's a game that your 7-year-old really loves, you can "screen pin" it on Android or activate "Guided Access" on iOS. Once you have that feature activated, they won't be able to move away from the game - it will be pinned to their screen.

On Android, go to Settings > Security > Screen pinning. You also need to make sure that "Ask for PIN before unpinning" is enabled, or else your kid will be able to navigate away.

On iOs, go to Settings > General > Accessibility > Guided Access.

14. Talk about strong passwords

As soon as your child has any accounts of their own - YouTube, social media, email, etc. - they need to know about strong passwords. It's always tempting to reuse passwords between accounts, but it's also the worst thing you can do if you're trying to protect your privacy and personal information.

Instead, think of three or four totally unrelated words that can be strung together. That way, it's easy to remember, but hard to figure out. Password management apps are another option. They’ll allow you to generate and store strong, unique passwords.

15. Talk about data tracking

The collection and sale of personal data to third-parties is one of the main ways that many "free" companies and services make money. It's up to us as individuals to decide how much information we’re willing to give away for free services. That doesn't necessarily mean you get to choose what you share. It just means you can choose to not use a service.

Even between our employees here on the Avast Secure Browser team, we have a wide range of viewpoints on what’s acceptable and what’s not. When it comes to social media for example, some of us completely refuse to participate while others enjoy it on a daily basis. The important thing for all of us is to understand how our information is being used, and then go from there.

When it comes to our children, educating them about data tracking early on helps them make those decisions in a more informed way. When they're old enough to understand, have a conversation about the type of data that's being tracked and collected, and what tools they have at their disposal, such as encryption, private browsing, VPNs, anti-virus and anti-phishing technology, and ad blockers. Avast Secure Browser encompasses all these tools, making private and secure online browsing accessible and easy.

16. Teach your child about free Wi-Fi

These days with high speed mobile connections and tethering, free or public Wi-Fi is less attractive, but it still might be tempting to connect in order to save data, especially when it comes to mobile gaming. Make sure your kids understand that free Wi-Fi is extremely vulnerable to attackers and cyber criminals. Teach your child to never send sensitive information - like credit cards or passwords - over a free Wi-Fi network. 

17. Explain phishing

Phishing attacks are when thieves use social engineering to trick people into giving them personal information, like credit card numbers, social security numbers, addresses, etc. Educate yourself on what phishing is and then teach your child how to be aware of phishing attacks - and best practices to protect themselves.

If you just said to yourself “they can’t fool me with those scams”, that’s a red flag that you might not know as much as you think you do! Phishing attacks these days are incredibly sophisticated, so do yourself a favor and read up on the topic.

18. Let your kids know they can always come to you

Finally, make it really clear that they can come to you with anything related to online privacy and won't get in trouble - even if they broke the rules. You are your child's first line of defense and in order for them to stay safe they have to know they can come to you, always.

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