Protecting Your Kids Online Series: Privacy and Predators

October 4, 2010 by David S. Seltzer

This is the second post in a planned series of posts about protecting your children online, from themselves as well as from predators and others who could harm them. Media reports make it clear that this is a subject of increasing concern for parents, and I have been fortunate enough to speak a few times, as a West Palm Beach cyber crime criminal defense lawyer, on the subject. The Internet can be a great resource for kids, but it can also pose problems when it’s used incorrectly. This week, I would like to talk about your child and online privacy, an issue that encompasses the dangers posed by adult sexual predators and financial criminals.

Because social media, texting and other forms of chat are popular with teenagers -- but not familiar to most adults -- a lot of parents are concerned about the dangers that these technologies could pose. The good news is that these are not inherently dangerous technologies, any more than a hammer is inherently dangerous. Just as you can use a hammer to build something or destroy something, social media and other online interactions can help or hurt. The bad news is that some adults use these tools as a way to find teenagers who are vulnerable to sexual exploitation, or people whose identities are easy to steal. The key is to help kids develop good “street smarts” online, knowing how to use these tools to protect themselves from people with bad motivations.

As with most things, experts suggest starting by talking to your teenagers about how much they share online. Many social networking websites give their users an opportunity to fill in information like where they live, birthdays, full name and personal interests. Some of this information could be harmless to share, but some of it is personal enough that it could make them targets for predators or financial criminals. For example, filling in an entire date of birth could let predators know that the teen is underage. Ask your kids: would you write this information on a billboard for total strangers to see? If not, they should be very careful about whom they share it with online. This is an opportunity to help your teens develop good people sense and good judgment about other people’s motivations. Parents can also consider setting ground rules about what information is okay to share.

Undoubtedly, some teens are going to resist restrictions on what they can share. In the birth date example, teens might enjoy getting “happy birthday” messages from friends who were reminded of their birthdays by a social networking site. Luckily, many social networking sites offer privacy settings. Facebook, which is currently the most popular social networking site in the United States, gives users the option to fine-tune their privacy settings. You and your teenager can use this tool to eliminate some information entirely and make other information available only to friends, or to friends of friends, or to specific sets of people within the teen’s friends. If they would like to still receive birthday messages, they can delete the year and leave the month and the day online. They can even block specific people or make sure their profiles do not come up in a search.

In addition to carefully choosing what information they fill in on websites, kids should use good judgment about what they share in direct person-to-person chat, texting or email. Again, ask your teen: If someone came up to you on the street and started asking you about yourself, what would you think about that person and his or her motivations? What if you couldn’t see them, so you didn’t know if they were the same person they claim to be? What if they wanted very detailed information about your bank account or the way you look? That’s the situation when a stranger contacts you online. Not every stranger has an ulterior motive, but some of them could be looking for easy targets for identity theft or sexual exploitation. In my experience as an Orlando cyber crime criminal defense attorney, unsophisticated adults and teens can even end up charged with crimes if they share their information with people involved in fraud. When in doubt, kids should share less information, not more.

Finally, you as a parent should know your rights. Under the federal Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act, parents must give permission for websites to collect personal information from kids under the age of 13. You should use this as an opportunity to make sure you’re comfortable with the sites your kids are using. If a site is violating the law, you have the right to report it and delete your kids’ accounts.

If your teen is too old for this law, you can still consider setting ground rules about which sites are acceptable, in part by reading privacy policies. Consider posting a list of rules about what is okay to share, and make it clear that there are consequences for breaking them. And remember, you’re the one paying the bill for Internet and phone service. If you don’t believe your teen is following the rules, you can review your phone bill and Web browser history to see for sure. If necessary, you can set your browser to block sites or install software that blocks or tracks what your teen is doing online. Making mistakes is part of being a young adult, but if your teen has run out of chances, technology gives you an opportunity to enforce the rules.

Seltzer Law, P.A., is a Miami criminal defense law firm serving people throughout Florida who are facing serious criminal charges. If you or your teenager are in legal trouble because of something that happened online, Fort Lauderdale cyber crime criminal defense attorney David Seltzer has the experience and technical knowledge to help you get the best possible outcome. To learn more or set up a free consultation, please send us a message or call us toll-free at 1-888-THE-DEFENSE (1-888-843-3333), 24 hours a day and seven days a week.