Keeping Your Kids Safe Online: It's 'Common Sense'

Child's hand on a pink computer mouse.
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If you're a parent, you may have wondered what your kids are texting to each other or posting on their Facebook pages. Or maybe you've thought about it and decided you don't want to know.

That's not the best approach, says child advocate James Steyer. Steyer runs Common Sense Media, an organization that helps parents decide which kinds of technology are age-appropriate for their kids.

In his new book, Talking Back to Facebook: A Common Sense Guide To Raising Kids in the Digital Age, Steyer explores some of the effects of digital media on kids and outlines strategies for making sure they don't fall into what he calls RAP — relationship issues, attention/addiction problems and privacy pitfalls — while navigating the digital world.

"Young people in particular often self-reveal before they self-reflect," Steyer tells Fresh Air's Dave Davies. "There is no eraser button today for youthful indiscretion."

That can obviously pose problems when teens are applying to colleges or for their first jobs.

Talking Back to Facebook
Talking Back to Facebook

The Common Sense Guide to Raising Kids in the Digital Age

by James P. Steyer

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"In a world where everything's photographed, where kids are constantly snapping photos on their cellphones and where youthful indiscretion is exactly the same as it's always been, the consequences can be much greater," he says.

"In Europe, they call this 'the right to be forgotten.' And there's been a public dialogue over the past six months or so about honoring the 'right to be forgotten.' Here in the United States, we're just starting to have that in the context of the broader privacy debate. But everybody out there understands this is an issue," he says.

Kids younger than 13 are protected under the Children's Online Privacy Protection Act — COPPA — which was written in 1998. The law was designed to protect the identity of kids, but that doesn't necessarily mean it translates to the present day, says Steyer.

"It was the stone ages of digital media," he says. "YouTube, Facebook, Google, Twitter — none of those services existed. So we have an antiquated structure to deal with these privacy issues."

And kids under 13 are increasingly lying about their age to get on these sites, he says.

"Consumer Reports reported last year that there are at least 7.5 million kids under the age of 13 on Facebook in the United States," he says. "So the COPPA laws are designed to protect the identity of kids 12 and under, but they are riddled with holes that are easily gone through. Millions of kids now just fake their age and go on Facebook and other platforms."

Steyer says he thinks websites and apps should allow kids under 18 to opt in, not opt out, when giving out personal information. He also strongly advocates for an "eraser button" to remove personal information and for tracking programs to stop tracking kids.

"Last year, the Wall Street Journal found that 30 percent more tracking cookies were being used on kids' [websites] than on ones for general audiences," he says. "So these are very basic things, but they will have an extraordinary impact on protecting privacy if we would just enact them."


Interview Highlights

On the pressure of communicating online

"Kids are starting to be aware of the pressure they feel to constantly be on, to constantly respond via text, and also to present their images on Facebook. So I think young people are increasingly aware of the positives as well as the downsides of this form of communication. And that's a good thing."

On online identities

"A lot of young people often describe and evolve their identities online, curating them 24/7. So their relationships with others and their self-image are deeply affected by the images that they present on Facebook, Google+ and elsewhere."

On texting

"Late at night, they do a lot of texting. I think a lot of parents out there need to know that their kids shouldn't be going to bed with their cellphones, 'cause they're often spending that time texting. A third of all texts are sent after official bedtime. Not only does that stimulate your brain and get in the way of sleep, but also, it's hard to not respond with texting, because you're not exactly sure what somebody said. You didn't see the nuances in their face or hear the nuances in their voice. And that changes the nature of human communication."

On putting pictures of your baby or toddler online

"I think you can be concerned about that because you never know why they're being used. You're creating a digital footprint. And some of the leading technology executives that I know never put up any pictures of their own children. Once the photo or video is up, it's up there permanently. Even if you delete it, someone else may have already downloaded it or shared it online. So it's a record that's trackable and public and permanent. And your child will have to live with that and sometimes they don't want to. If you do opt to share baby pictures online, make sure your privacy settings are very carefully restricted."

Correction May 30, 2012

A previous Web version of this story incorrectly identified COPPA, the Children's Online Privacy Protection Act, as COPA, the Children's Online Protection Act. Additionally, in the audio, we mistakenly refer to children between the ages of 13 and 7; it should be 13 and 17.

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