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Teens and online privacy: what should parents do?

Posted by Dr. Claire McCarthy  August 26, 2013 08:44 AM

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teens cell phone.jpgThere's good news and bad news in a study released last week from the Berkman Center and Pew Internet about where teens look for online privacy advice.

Bad news first: they mostly figure things out for themselves. They go through the choices on the platform or app about managing their privacy, or they do online searches to answer their questions.

The good news: 70 percent seek some outside advice--and of those who do, 41 percent talk to their parents. Not surprisingly, 12 and 13-year-olds were more likely to ask for advice than older teens, and more likely to talk to their parents.

That means, though, that parents need to have something to say. And for many parents, that "something" ends up being: "Be careful" or "Don't do it," or something equally unhelpful or unrealistic.

The reality is that our teens are online, on social media platforms and apps and search engines. This is the new reality for all of us, actually. As parents, we have a responsibility to teach our children about things that are going to be integral to their lives--and that could possibly get them into trouble. We teach them to cross streets, we teach them to be careful about strangers, we teach them to drive....and now we need to teach them about online privacy.

The problem is, in lots of families the kids know more than the parents do. In another study from  the Berkman Center and Pew Internet, researchers found that teens often uninstall mobile apps or turn off location features in order to protect their privacy.

Here's some advice for parents as they take on this new task:

Make sure your children know the three important warnings about online life:
  • Not all is as it seems. It's easy to pretend on the Internet. You can't believe everything you see or read, and not everyone is exactly as they portray themselves (that really nice girl so eager to make friends just might be a 50-year-old child molester). Skepticism is really key.
  • Nothing is private. All it takes is one screen can and should do everything possible to keep things private, but there's no such thing as definite privacy. Teens need to learn this lesson really well, and be sure that they would be comfortable with anyone in the world reading what they put online--because anyone in the world (including parents, teachers,employers, admissions officers and the friend they happen to be talking about) just might.
  • Everything is permanent. Again, the screen shot, nothing really goes away. It's always there somewhere, even if you take it down or otherwise delete it. Teens need to understand that they are creating a "digital footprint" that will forever be part of what people know and think about them.
Learn about online privacy. You can't teach what you don't know. There are way too many platforms and options to learn about them all, but join a few and try them out. Get a sense of how things work. There are lots of good resources out there for parents like Common Sense Media--check them out.

Be proactive. Start your young teen on a social media site such as Facebook or Instagram, and download some apps if they have a smartphone. They are going to do it anyway--why not do it with them? That way you can do it together, at a time when they are far more likely to listen to you and share passwords with you. Doing it this way gives you a chance to teach them and learn from them, and have an influence in how and when they go online--and how they navigate the world of online privacy. 

Think of it like teaching them to cross a street, or be careful with strangers, or to drive a car. At first, you do it with them. And then, when they are old enough and skilled enough, you let them do it on their own. 

Even though this time you'll be learning it with them, it's still your job.

Is there something you'd like me to write about? Leave me a message on my Facebook page--and "like" the page for links to all my MD Mama blogs as well as my blogs on Thriving and Huffington Post. 
This blog is not written or edited by or the Boston Globe.
The author is solely responsible for the content.

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About MD Mama

Claire McCarthy, M.D., is a pediatrician and Medical Communications Editor at Boston Children's Hospital . An assistant professor of pediatrics at Harvard Medical School and a senior editor for Harvard More »

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