As summer beings to wind down and school starts once again, social media platforms are flooded with back-to-school photos of smiling kids in their best outfits posted by proud parents.
Accompanied by captions celebrating the start of 4th grade at So-And-So Elementary or props written on colorful paper sharing a child’s age or class name, these seemingly harmless pictures can be a joy for friends and family to see. They also have the potential to put private information about you or your child at risk.
“We have the best of intentions, but not everybody who sees these pictures and these posts and these videos will have the best of intention, so we’ve got to really guard against, the bad actors online,” Donna Rice Hughes, President and CEO of Enough Is Enough, a nonprofit organization that focuses on making the internet safer for children and families, told USA TODAY. “As a general rule, don’t share any what we call personally identifiable information.”
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What is personally identifiable information?
According to Hughes, this term can refer to anything posted online that gives viewers hints about someone’s personal life, such as where they live, their name, age, etc. In the case of common back-to-school posts, this can include:
- Indications of where the child goes to school, either by name or general area. This can include geotags and using the “check-in” function on social media platforms, naming the child’s teacher, taking pictures in front of the school or identifying the school mascot.
- Hints as to where the child lives, not only by mentioning a city or neighborhood name but including the front of your home or another recognizable landmark in a photo.
- Where the child engages in after-school actives, such as the name of a sports team, photos of the child wearing a sporty jersey or the name of the programs the child attends.
- Personal information about the child, such as name, age, height, weight and interests.
“It’s ok to say that the child is in the first grade or the fifth grade, but not where he or she goes to school, etc.,” Hughes said. “Ask yourself those questions: Is there anything in the picture or the video that would help someone who could be dangerous or harmful to my child find out information about my child that I don’t want that person to know?”
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What to do instead
- Lock down security settings on social platforms on which you intend to share information about your kids and family. Make sure you are sharing to “friends only” and that your friends list includes people you are comfortable with seeing this information.
- Be aware of what “only friends” sharing means on different platforms: once the photo is online, friends can sometimes still share it with their friends.
- Text or email photos and family updates directly to loved ones instead of sharing on social media.
- Set boundaries and rules with people you intend to share with. Tell grandparents, friends, aunts, uncles, etc. your expectations for privacy and when/if it is ever okay to share what you send them.
“It’s important because again, bad actors…including predators, traffickers, bullies and any type of identity thief…. we don’t want any of these bad actors to be able to identify where that child is and how to be able to get to that child,” said Hughes.
This means not only being aware of what you as a parent, friend or loved one posts online about your family, but teaching kids how to be smart with their own sharing.
“Help them to think very critically,” Hughes said. “Is there something in this picture about me, or even somebody that they may be sharing about, like one of their friends, that could put them at risk to someone who could be dangerous?”
She suggests parents not only set up filtering and monitoring tools to assist them in keeping track of children’s online activity but giving kids the tools to keep themselves safe online as well.
How to set kids up for success
- Use the “layering” approach. Most devices like smartphones, tablets, computers and even televisions come with built-in parental controls, as do most social media and gaming platforms. Familiarize yourself with and set up these filters and monitoring tools both on devices themselves and whatever platform your child is using.
- Before allowing your child to sign up for a new platform, ask yourself, “Am I willing, ready and able to get to know the privacy and security options for this platform and take the time to set them up and monitor them?”
- Teach kids to only interact with a parent-approved buddy list when online. This includes gaming platforms, which often offer multiple chat functions.
- If your child is issued a device by their school, don’t assume that the school has already implemented the proper safety features. Check each device they are given to ensure the settings meet your standards of safety.
- Find out the internet policies at your child’s school. Does the school ever post pictures or information about their students online? When are children granted access to the internet on school grounds and is that access monitored, filtered and secure? Are students allowed to bring and use their own devices on campus?
- Have frequent, open and honest conversations with children about online safety. Foster an environment in which they feel safe coming to you and talking about their experiences on the internet.
Communication is key
Hughes said the last point is one she considers most important. While implementing monitoring tools that tell you about your kids online habits and applying content-blocking filters are great practices, nothing beats instilling internet literacy and fostering a safe environment for serious discussions.
“Having regular conversations with your kids about what they’re doing and how they’re using technology is one of the most important proactive things that you can do,” said Hughes.
Building an atmosphere of trust that lets kids know you are a safe, reasonable person to come to is key, she said. She suggests showing kids that, no matter what, you will not shame them or overreact and, instead, will listen and work through experiences and concerns alongside them.
“That way, then you become the safe person and that’s so important. You can help mitigate so many problems if you just keep those lines of communication open with your kid,” said Hughes.