Internet Privacy

Keeping your kids’ personal information safe online.

It’s a teen’s worst nightmare. Those compromising photos sent to one friend later surface on the cell phones of hundreds of other teenagers. It turns out that the friend sent them to a few friends and those few friends sent them to another few friends. At a viral rate, the teen’s photos – and possibly, reputation – have now become part of the social discussion at schools across town.

Over time, will the photos somehow fade into nonexistence? Digital media answers with an unapologetic ‘no’. Once you hit ‘send’, the damage is done; there’s no undo button. What was once shared is now up for grabs. Forever.

Online privacy at risk

The buzz about online privacy has many passing it off as a mere product of sensationalism and paranoia. Privacy advocates, however, maintain that online privacy fears are justified and founded on fact. In the U.S., a nationwide study revealed that one in five teens has sent nude or semi-nude photos to friends online or through cell phones. In Canada, a total of 464 online child luring cases were reported from 2006 to 2007. And a 2007 survey of employers discovered that 44 percent use social networking sites to screen job applicants.

Social networking sites themselves pose privacy risks to users. Just recently, Facebook was reprimanded by Canada’s Privacy Commissioner for agreeing to let third-party advertisers use members’ posted pictures in their ads. This, after Facebook members found their photos in advertisements for products and services they had not endorsed. Picture, for instance, an ad with the caption, “Got acne? We’ve got the cure!” Perched above the caption, you find your son’s not-so-flattering photo, lifted from the album his friend uploaded during a stressful exam period.

What makes the Internet a threat to the personal privacy of kids is their inability to identify the risks. Kids are sharing personal information and photos through social networks, file sharing networks, emails, instant messages and chat rooms. Meanwhile, cyber criminals, cyber predators, and third-party advertisers are increasingly using the Internet to exploit individuals’ personal information for their own ends.

Sharing information online

The rule of thumb for kids when sharing or posting anything online (e.g., personal identifiable information, blogs, videos, images) is to not share anything that they wouldn’t share in person.

Children should ask themselves before posting:

  • Would I let my parents, grandparents, current 

and future employers, and prospective colleges see this?
  • Do I want a sex offender or crook to have access to this?
  • Would I put this on my school locker?

Hiding behind screen names, kids are deceived into believing that their online actions can’t trail back to them. Many can’t connect their online actions with real-life consequences – a lot of which are long term and slow to surface.

Their greatest privacy threats online include:

  • Themselves. For example, a prospective employer googles your child’s name for a preliminary background check. The search yields forum and blog sites with photos and posts that leave the employer with a decidedly negative view of your child.
  • Peers. What if members of a message board your child frequents decide to turn on him? They post false rumours and even reveal your child’s real name and home address, which were disclosed upon registration.
  • Criminals (e.g., sex offenders, identity thieves). Suppose the 12-year-old ‘friend’ your child meets in a chatroom turns out to be a 30-year-old stalker who later approaches your child at school, tipped off by the school uniform logo in the photo your child sent.

Tips for parents

Parents should:

Start a dialogue with your children. Discuss issues such as:

  • How an open platform like the Internet operates.
  • Who may access their personal information.
  • How their information and communications can be used and misused.
  • How to manage their online information to protect themselves.

Develop a contract with your child to set rules for Internet use (see “Internet Guides” at Review the contract regularly. Revise it as your kids get older.

Read the privacy policy and terms of service on websites your children visit. Find out what information the site collects and how it may be used. In addition, find out if you can choose whether or not your child’s information is collected. Finally, use privacy and account settings to control their information.

Look for the web seal (a privacy ‘seal of approval’ like TRUSTe). This indicates a website’s privacy practices are audited and posted.

Author: Ashley Huffman

Ashley Huffman is a staff writer at, an Internet safety weblog;

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