Keeping It Private Online

Lynn JataniaRecently, my nephew, age 12, received a letter in the mail. It was addressed to him personally, by name. Inside was a photocopied article about the powers of a new virility medicine, complete with the usual graphic promises for pleasuring the ladies. The article mentioned a specific “doctor” by name, but other than that, there was no contact information or order form or any other action request. It appeared to just be spam but in paper form.

This was the first time I’d heard of such a thing happening, and of course my sister and her son were very upset. On top of the odd method of contact, we were both very concerned about how my nephew’s name and home address had gotten out there in the world. As a 12-year-old boy, he doesn’t get a lot of other paper mail, besides the occasional birthday card from his grandparents.

It seems clear that his personal information must have been stolen from some kind of digital platform. He has a phone now, and although his parents monitor it carefully, it does give him greater access to the internet than before. As with most of the wild woolly internet, we will probably never be able to trace the exact path that led to his information being compromised.

So what can we do about it? My sister reported the mailing to the police, and hopefully they will be able to trace it to a source. But for now, we all took this incident as a chance to sit down with our kids for a bit of a refresher on online privacy.

Our current rules are:

  • Never create an account on a website without checking with us first.
  • Never buy things online (as this would require the use of our credit cards or PayPal accounts, which are strictly off limits!).
  • Never share your personal info – name, address, phone number – with unknown sites or people online.
  • Never post pictures or use names of your friends without their permission.
  • Keep your social media feeds on a friends-only setting.

These are great ground rules for keeping them safe now – but I worry that they aren’t teaching them how to be safe in the future. Eventually they’re going to grow up and move out. They’re going to want to shop online or sign up for newsletters or join online groups that require an account. We can’t just throw them in the deep end after years of a strict “no access” policy and expect them to swim. So how do we teach them to be responsible and use their judgement wisely, and not just count on strict avoidance?

I read a great article many years ago about how parents should introduce their kids to strangers. Of course, for the very young, “don’t talk to strangers” is a hard and fast rule. But that teaches them to be afraid all time, and also doesn’t give them any skills when it comes to getting a good “read” on people. The article suggested encouraging your children to talk to strangers when you are with them – perhaps asking for a table in a restaurant, or handling the checkout transaction at a store – and then afterwards, talking to them about their impressions. Was that a nice person? What did you think of what they said? Did you feel comfortable? In this way, they’d learn how to handle everyday interactions and how to trust their own gut feel when dealing with the world.

I’m thinking this could be a great way to approach the way my kids work with the internet. It’s not enough anymore, now that they are well into their teen years, to just ban things. We have to find a way to teach them how to make good decisions, not simply run away.

This incident has triggered, for me, some thoughts about how we should maybe change our strict “rules” into something more like “guidelines.” I’m already inviting my teens to come to me with online account or shopping opportunities, so they can start to figure out for themselves what feels right and what doesn’t when it comes to sharing their personal information. I want them to think about what they are sharing, and with who – does this website seem legitimate? Do it have good reviews and a good record online? Are you comfortable with the level of personal info you are giving out? What would you do if this information was compromised? Let’s talk about it together.

How much do you let your teen do online, and what are your guidelines for privacy?

As your kids get older and more independent, our guides Your Connected Life and On the Loose can help them learn to make good decisions about privacy, ethics, online shopping and other digital issues.