Child Safety in the Land of Apps

The digital divide between parents and their children is probably the widest it will ever be. Today’s youth are being referred to as digital natives: they were either born during or after the introduction of digital technologies and are far more adept at using them than prior generations. In our modern world, you’re more likely to see a five-year-old teaching his grandfather how to use an iPad than the reverse. Yet, even though kids are learning to use electronic devices and apps at a young age, they’re not always being taught the skills they need to discern when they’re being sold to, scammed, tracked, or persuaded into sharing too much information online.

This is one of the focuses of Heidi Boghosian’s new book Spying on Democracy: Government Surveillance, Corporate Power, and Public Resistance. Part of what the book examines is, “how children’s online activities and use of mobile apps put them at risk of handing over personal information to corporate marketers.” For marketers, the digital landscape has provided an abundance of new avenues to collect data on potential consumers─children included. Without the proper guidance, children will continue to hand over personal information─often without awareness of long-term consequences or parental consent.

In 2012, 14 groups—led by the Center for Digital Democracy—filed a complaint against five different companies that used websites and online games to encourage kids to share the email addresses of their friends. The five companies and their websites, which included,,, and, were charged with violating the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act of 1998 (COPPA) by collecting online data from those under the age of 13. Despite this important ruling, data collection on children is still very much a reality. In a survey conducted by the FTC late last year, only 20% of 400 popular children’s apps were active in disclosing their data collection policies.

Given this lack of transparency, it’s not surprising that 81% of parents (of 802 surveyed) were worried about exposing children’s personal information to advertisers. What’s more? App usage by children is on the rise. In fact, app stores on both iOS and Android now have a specific section for apps aimed at children. Many of these apps track and store physical location, phone numbers of friends, and device identification. Even when apps do disclose their data collection policies, they often neglect opt-out options, as is the case with the ever-popular Angry Birds.

Despite these less than ideal practices, there are steps that parents can take to educate and protect children from sharing too much online. What are your options for keeping your children’s personal data out of the hands of marketers─or worse, cybercriminals?

  • Educate children on the difference between official and unofficial app stores. While apps from official app stores can still grab information, they’re much better regulated than apps from other less protected sources. If your child will be using your device (or one of their own), teach them to always seek apps from Google Play or the Apple App Store. Even better? Ask that your child request permission prior to downloading new apps.
  • Talk to your children about the dangers of over sharing. Just as our generation was urged never to take candy from a stranger, we must teach our children to ignore tempting offers that may pop up in ads through their favorite apps. More importantly, let your kids know to withhold personally identifiable information such as home or school address, phone numbers, their age, school name, birthdate, or parent’s names.
  • Discuss only sharing with those that they know. Whether they’re playing Words with Friends or Halo, teach your children to keep personal information shared in games, chat rooms, and elsewhere online to a minimum. If virtual “friends” start asking prying questions─let them know to keep things short and report anything suspicious back to you.
  • Talk with children about the dangers of sharing their location. When a pop-up window asks if it’s ok for “App X” to use your location, it’s often too easy to click “OK.” Get your child in the habit of saying “No,” especially when they’re using social networks. Not only will children put themselves at risk by sharing their location, they may leave the entire family vulnerable. Disclosing vacations, while exciting, is not advised as strangers with access to this information may decide now is an opportune time to burgle the family home.
  • Get comprehensive security software for all of your home and mobile devices. The best way you can protect your children’s identities and devices from over-curious app creators is to invest in comprehensive security software. McAfee LiveSafe™ service protects all of your devices, including smartphones, tablets, PCs, and Macs—and it was just named a PC Mag Editors’ Choice!

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Gary Davis

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