Warning Kids About Digital Privacy Doesn't Work. Here's What Does.

New guidelines can help parents and teachers talk to kids about their online choices

Children with cell phones GettyImages-843840148

Reading. Writing. And ... digital privacy? As the new school year starts, your kids will probably dive into long division—or maybe quadratic equations—but there’s a good chance they’ll miss out on practical education about what they should post and share online.

“There’s still quite a need for basic digital privacy as a skill set with a curriculum that’s designed to be developmentally appropriate,” says Meghan McDermott, a senior fellow at Mozilla, and the former director of its digital learning portfolio.

Some educational resources are available, including a Digital Citizenship Curriculumcreated by the advocacy group Common Sense Media, which the group says has reached 6,000 schools nationwide. However, many schools are stretched too thin to devote staff time and class time to the subject.

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“There’s an increase in the number of schools that are concerned about digital privacy,” says Marc Lesser, chief learning officer of Mouse, which makes web literacy products for schools. “But at the same time, there’s a stark line between schools that have the privilege of doing something with this and those that don’t. In education, money is time.”

Which leaves the task to parents, and to kids themselves.

“Based on our research, we can say that youth primarily educate themselves when comes to privacy,” says Sandra Cortesi, director of youth and media programs at Harvard University’s Berkman Klein Center for Internet & Society.

Parents can help. Educators helped us identify five tips and related conversation starters you can use to help kids become savvier digital citizens.

1. Focus on What Kids Care About

The first thing to know about kids and digital privacy is that—obligatory eye rolls aside—privacy really does matter to them.

“Contrary to many myths, kids care very much about privacy,” Harvard’s Cortesi says.

But young users tend to care about different things than adults. While grown-ups are often focused on what information is being collected by big companies, educators say that kids are more worried about their reputations: how their social posts (or what’s shared and posted by others) affect the way their peers view them.

Recognizing that young people view privacy primarily as a personal matter can help adults steer conversations in a direction that feels relevant.

And there’s nothing more powerful than parents modeling the importance of privacy by asking a kid’s permission before they post a photo online.

Conversation starter: Why is privacy important to you?

2. Accentuate the Positive

Many current digital-privacy lessons channel old-school health classes: They start with some technical advice and end with stern warnings about the dire consequences awaiting kids who post something they shouldn’t.

“A lot of the information is outdated and difficult for students to relate to,” says Chris Osario, middle school dean of the East Side Community School, a school for sixth- through 12th-graders in New York City.

And the advice tends to accentuate the negative.

“What kids are hearing is a list of don’ts,” says Kelly Mendoza, senior director of education programs at Common Sense Media. She and other experts say it can be more useful to offer advice on how to navigate the complicated digital world in a way that safeguards privacy while helping kids enjoy online experiences.

“I would get parents thinking not about how to convey a mythical fear narrative around privacy, but to empower young people to make smarter choices that are simpler than the algebra they’re doing in middle school,” Lesser says.

Conversation starter: What do you like about sharing on social media?

3. Tie Digital Behavior to the Real World

Researchers have discovered that most kids have a sophisticated understanding of privacy—in the real world, at least.

They understand the significance of closed doors and private, written notes, and they act accordingly. However, they don’t always extend that thinking to online decision-making.

To address this issue, University of Wisconsin-Madison researchers Jennifer Dalsen and Caroline Hardin have built an online game, still in its beta stage, called Detectives of Digital Privacy, which debuted at the recent Def Con security conference. It’s meant to bridge the gap between the real world and the screen world.

“If a kid finds a diary on the floor, they understand what to do with it,” Dalsen says. Young people know that they shouldn’t read private material. And that reading it aloud to others would be even worse. Copying the pages and handing them out? Out of the question.

For parents and teachers, Dalsen and Hardin say, it can be a short leap to help kids understand that the same kind of privacy rules should apply to texts, pictures, and emails.

Osario, the middle school dean, takes a page from Jimmy Kimmel’s Mean Tweets skit. He collects actual texts and social media posts that had been sent to the school’s high school students and asks middle schoolers to read them aloud. Invariably, the kids can’t bring themselves to read insults that their slightly older peers had written.

“So many kids can sit behind a computer and type things they would never say out loud,” Osario says.

Put another way, “Too many parents are under the assumption you need to reinvent a moral code for the digital age,” Mouse’s Lesser says. “But the Golden Rule is still the Golden Rule.”

Conversation starter: Do you have different privacy rules for real-life things than for online posts?

4. Encourage Less-Than-Perfect Personas

Adults often encourage kids to present the best, most professional version of themselves online—always. While that sounds like an admirable goal, the experts says it’s unrealistic to think kids will post and share only things that would pass muster with Grandma or the dean of admissions.

“That’s a fallacy,” says the University of Wisconsin’s Dalsen. It’s also unnecessary.

Kids, like adults, have many different personas. The University of Wisconsin program tries to use this concept, which academics call “Figured Worlds,” to help kids find their voice—or more accurately their voices—online.

“People have different roles they play, and actions can mean different things, depending upon context,” Dalsen says. “They talk differently to their teachers, their parents, and their best friends, so why shouldn’t they have different online selves, too?”

High schoolers already use different online platforms to speak to different audiences. They might use Snapchat for close friends, Instagram for a larger group of casual acquaintances, and, say, Facebook to communicate with Mom and Dad and the debate coach. Students often use texting and small group messaging for conversations that demand a higher level of privacy.

It’s important to remember that nothing posted online is reliably anonymous and that anything can get shared and passed on by others. Nude photos, offensive jokes, and similar content are always a bad idea.

But parents and teachers shouldn’t worry too much about content that may simply be silly. It’s not like “you can’t have a goofy cosplay Harry Potter Fan Club online,” Lesser says. “It just means there are ways to control the way you put that identity out there that separates it from your other identities, like the ones you might direct colleges to when you apply.”

After all, if a college—or your grandmother—does stumble on your kid’s Hogwarts photos, that’s not a crisis.

Conversation starter: Do you dress or speak differently for close friends than for your parents or teachers? Do you post different content online depending on who’ll see it?

5. Care About Sharing

Less sophisticated digital privacy lessons, whether they come from teachers or parents, tend to focus on the two ends of the social media chain—the person who creates a post and the person who ultimately reads it.

So if an embarrassing photo or message gets shared online, the victim may be blamed for sending the material in the first place.

But experts urge parents to think more broadly. Recent anti-bullying campaigns have evolved to bring attention to those who enable bad situations by encouraging a bully with attention or failing to intervene or report incidents. And the same idea apples to digital content.

Common Sense Media’s Digital Citizenship Curriculum includes a concept called Rings of Responsibility that encourages students to think about how sharing photos or posts may affect their peers.

“We teach kids that the have responsibility for protecting other people’s privacy as well as their own,” Mendoza says.

Conversation starter: How much responsibility does the “sharer” have when a post spreads beyond its intended audience and someone gets embarrassed or hurt because of that? Does it matter if the post was really funny?

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Allen St. John

I believe that technology has the power to change our lives—for better or for worse. That's why I’ve spent my life reporting and writing about it for outlets of all sorts, from newspapers (such as the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times) to magazines (Popular Mechanics and Rolling Stone) and even my own books ("Newton’s Football" and "Clapton’s Guitar"). For me, there's no better way to spend a day than talking to a bunch of experts about an important subject and then writing a story that'll help others be smarter and better informed.