If you have email, iTunes, Facebook, or any other online account, then you are familiar with Terms of Service; you know, those excessively long, confusing legal documents that we all click “accept” on so that we can download the latest episode of Modern Family. These documents are confusing, and very few of us have the time or knowledge necessary to process 56 pages of legalese (yes, the iTunes Terms of Service is 56 pages!). Fortunately, there are several movements out there to encourage technology institutions to present easier to understand and more transparent Terms of Service and Privacy Guidelines; in fact, Microsoft and Google have recently revamped their TOS agreements. In the meantime, here is a brief “cheat sheet” to help parents and teachers to assess the safety of online tools. It will also help to clarify what happens when your children engage and share online.
It’s easy to want to dismiss age restrictions for online services. After all, with just a little creative math your child can use some great resources like email or Skype to communicate with family far away or even enjoy videos from YouTube. However, an age restriction may be a sign that this is a tool to examine more closely. If you find it of value to your child, then you might want to create an account in your own name and with credentials that you can use together. This could open up a myriad of opportunities to help guide your child through appropriate usage.
There are two age restrictions that frequently appear with online resources: age 18 and 13. If a company or organization requires that an individual be 18 years old to use their services, this is often a sign that they require their users to enter into legally binding contracts (such as financial agreements for purchases such as with airlines). Additionally, it may have adult content (nudity, violence, tobacco and/or alcohol use, language, etc). It is important to note that an 18 year old age restriction is not an automatic black mark. For example, if your child is working on a stock market project for school, then it may be useful for them to have access to a brokerage account in order to get up-to-the-minute stock price updates. This is an appropriate use, but because your child is under 18, it’s also a perfect opportunity for parent-child collaboration on homework; you can create the account and use it with your child!
Because of the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA), companies are limited on what information they can collect and share for children under the age of 13. This magic number is a prime indicator that data is being collected and shared, so keep in mind that the age 13 requirements for Facebook or Google are not arbitrary! These are organizations that make their income from selling user data to advertisers. Deciding whether the cost is worth the benefits is highly personal; however, this is a great opportunity to discuss online behavior, digital citizenship, and digital footprints before deciding to sign up.
Many organizations will allow you to sign up for notifications of updates. They will email you every time that there is a change to their privacy policies. This is a great way to stay up to date. In addition to this, you can go back and check privacy policies on a regular basis (every few months). Big companies often make the news when they make drastic changes, especially if they are controversial, so pay attention to these stories and follow up with your own research. You may want to keep a special eye on things like changes to default sharing settings (public vs. private) and how data is being collected.
Navigating Terms of Service and privacy policies can be confusing and challenging. Never hesitate to enlist others in your quest. Speak to other parents, join discussion groups, read websites dedicated to online privacy (check out “Terms of Service; Didn’t Read”). If your child is in school, seek out the Tech Director with questions. They navigate this world on a regular basis and can help to assuage your concerns or highlight areas where you should be more vigilant. As Director of Educational Technology, I am always eager to form partnerships with parents and colleagues to raise awareness of common security issues and keep them informed about the tools we are using in school.
There has been a lot of push-back on the tech world to encourage companies to be more proactive and transparent in what type of data they collect and how they use it. Many organizations (such as Google and Microsoft) have responded positively to public pressure. Additionally, federal and state legislation is beginning to address online privacy with a special eye to protecting children. Reaching out to government officials and adding your voice to the cause will help to push this along. Parents are reasonably concerned about their child’s online presence; and with the abundance of online tools, it’s a challenge to keep up. However, by enlisting others and making a concerted effort, you can help to keep your children safe online.