Your children and “faux” privacy online

In the Glow

This recent article in the Wall Street Journal really annoyed me.

Customers ask me all the time about children’s safety online. My general opinion is that “parental control” software is ineffective and a poor substitute for parental supervision of computer usage.

This article reinforces my opinion. Even on “kid-safe” websites, your children’s’ privacy is at risk. For adults, I think cookies are a necessary aspect of web surfing. Cookies help websites track information and create a seamless experience on the web. Occasionally this information is used for marketing purposes. So are the “loyalty” cards the grocery store provides, as well as your credit card. Even without cookies your information is being tracked online.

Children, though, need protection. They are more vulnerable than adults and are at risk for aggressive marketing pitches. I remember TV before the Children’s Television Act when the line between programming and commercials was very blurred. “We’ll be back after these important messages” was a reminder to kids that eating that sugary cereal isn’t part of the show.

However on the web, kids don’t have that protection. Websites can target ads to children and seamlessly make them part of the web surfing experience and kids may not understand the difference.

The scariest part of the article: some of these kids website share ownership with adult-oriented websites. The question the article left me with is “what do these companies do with the data when the children turn 18?” At that point, all bets are off and the years of data collection can lead to more aggressive sales tactics. Webkinz anyone?

My advice remains the same: directly supervise your kids on the Internet and watch what information they share with websites and the links they click. Just because something is marked as “safe” doesn’t necessarily mean it is. Other risks exist on the internet besides “inappropriate” content. The only person who can determine what is safe for your child is you, not a computer.

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