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Safety ’Net

By Sala Levin ’10


For anxious parents, protecting children’s privacy online may seem impossible, as if the only choices are to hover awkwardly over kids every minute that they spend on screens, or unplug entirely and re-create Colonial Williamsburg at home.

But published new research from UMD’s College of Information Studies suggests there’s a middle ground for parents seeking to shield their kids from digital predators and hackers in an age of Internet ubiquity.

Researchers at UMD and Princeton University interviewed 18 families with children ages 5–11 about their online habits. They discovered that most understood the basics of privacy: revealing their favorite flavor of ice cream was fine, but sharing computer passwords was not.

“Largely, they understood that certain types of information can be more sensitive than others,” says doctoral student Priya Kumar ’09, who conducted the research with Assistant Professors Tamara Clegg and Jessica Vitak, and master’s students Shalmali Naik and Utkarsha Devkar MIM ’17.

But recent events in the news suggest that families may still have reason to worry: On Jan. 30, health experts demanded that Facebook shut down its new Messenger Kids app, saying its target audience of kids as young as 6 can’t yet make judgments on what to share with whom. And last month, toymaker VTech Electronics agreed to pay $650,000 to settle charges that it had inappropriately collected data on children.

The risks expand as the audience does: 98 percent of U.S. kids ages 8 and under live in homes with at least one mobile device, and 42 percent of that age group have their own screens, Common Sense Media reported last year.

How can parents protect their kids from security breaches online while teaching them about the nuances of online privacy? Kumar offers a few suggestions.

  • Double-check device settings. “Anywhere a kid could get access to credit card information or other sensitive stuff, parents should have that password-protected,” says Kumar. Parents should also check settings on devices like Amazon Echo or internet-connected toys to make sure there are limits on how kids can use them.
  • Explain your actions to your children. “Some of the kids we talked to knew that you could get a new game or a new app onto a smart phone, but they weren’t exactly sure how,” says Kumar. Explaining to kids that a parent has to buy a new game with a credit card—and that that’s why the app store requires a password—helps kids understand “not only the logic behind rules, but how the technology actually works,” says Kumar.
  • Use physical-world analogies. Parents may tell children that using a password on a computer is like locking their front door when they leave the house, or that sending messages to people they don’t know is akin to talking to a stranger at the grocery store.
  • Use existing resources to learn more about these issues. Kumar points to Common Sense Media and the Family Online Safety Institute as two reliable sources of information.

Above all, Kumar urges parents to talk to their kids at a younger age than they might think necessary. Existing research indicates that teenagers are “less likely to see their parents as a resource,” she says. “So we’d say, parents, you can talk to your kids right now and there’s a better chance they’re going to listen and develop these habits.”

Maryland Today is produced by the Office of Marketing and Communications for the University of Maryland community on weekdays during the academic year, except for university holidays.