It’s time to draw the line on tracking children online

It’s a challenging time to be a parent. Sure, every generation makes that claim, but I know my parents didn’t have to worry what my browsing habits, shopping history or fondness for puzzle games meant to corporations around the world.

I had the fortune of being online in my teens, before the tracking, optimizing and profiling we have now existed. Today’s web is different. We aren’t finding information as much as it is presented to us — thanks to various algorithms that build and analyze digital profiles for each of us — kids included. Those collections of data can include where we’re from, other sites we’ve visited, apps we’ve installed and merchandise we’ve purchased. This can be helpful and delightful when it connects us to things that interest us, or annoying and creepy when we learn the facts about how some tech companies have cared for our data. These profiles aren’t typically something we can validate, alter or delete either, but the data within them may follow us for the rest of our lives.

This is the part where modern parenting gets hard. Right now, some tech companies are using apps, videos, games and more to build these same types of profiles of children, sometimes without parental consent. In exchange, companies provide free or low-cost content, which they in turn use to collect data. This kind of data can be used to improve products, but it’s also often sold and end up in the hands of people we’d never anticipated.

Be aware of the hidden costs

I don’t want to suggest that technology and children are at odds. The web is a powerful learning tool and it can be tremendously fun. Tech companies create products that help your family CTO limit screen time, use safe search filters or manage how different family members access the web. As the adults in charge of family technology we also need to consider what we’re giving up in exchange for those features.

For example, Google connects browsing history to Google Accounts so they can serve you hyper-targeted advertising. Facebook’s algorithms analyze how we interact with our friends and content, then use that to create an experience so immersive we’re not sure how it happened, but suddenly we all own gravity blankets.

We have to consider what all this tracking means for our children. A recent report from the UK estimated that by the time a child turns 18, there will be an incredible 70,000 posts about them on the internet. That volume of posts and their context is much more than an algorithm needs to develop a profile. Individually, those photos, Snaps and Likes are pretty innocuous, but as a digital footprint it may have a serious impact on your child’s future. Everything from identity theft to employment opportunities could be at stake.

Every family deserves every opportunity to be safe online. There is so much opportunity to learn, connect and play. At Mozilla we believe users should have control over their data, which is why products, like Firefox, work by collecting a minimum amount of sensitive information about the people who use them. We believe that children shouldn’t be tracked online without parental consent.

What can you do?

You can help your family be aware of how they’re being tracked and discuss the implications of what’s in their digital footprint. Encourage your kids to take a good look at the privacy controls in their favourite sites, games and apps. While many of these products are set to share data by default, they do provide you with ways to customize or limit what you share.

Getting everyone to read through a privacy policy may be an unlikely Family Day activity, but many tech companies have worked to make their data policies easy to read, making it easy for your family to have a conversation about online privacy.

Until tech companies add in these kinds of protections into the code, and make modern parenting a little less complex, you and your kids can take these steps to minimize or manage your digital profile.

Chelsea Novak is the Editorial Lead for Firefox at Mozilla and parent of two

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