Parenting • May 28, 2013

Is online privacy for kids a lost cause?

The average American teen has 300 Facebook “friends” according to new data out this week from the PEW Internet and American Life Project , yet only 60% set their Facebook profiles to private (friends only).  53% post their email addresses and 20% post their cell phone numbers.   Is there such thing as a private life for our next generation? 

As a physician I’ve been indoctrinated with HIPPA and patient privacy rules.  We go to great extremes in health care to protect patient privacy, and spend a lot of tax payer dollars to do it.  But when it comes to Facebook and the internet… not much seems private anymore.

DA60079Privacy is changing.  What does that mean for kids? 

The researchers at PEW have put together a great infographic that summarizes their report on teens, social media, and privacy.

The easiest way to protect kids is to monitor their online activity, right?  Be their Facebook friend.  Follow them on Twitter.  Know who they are interacting with online.  Be sure your kids are not Facebook friends with people they have never met in person.  Yet according to this new data from PEW, only  70% of teens on Facebook are Facebook friends with their parents, and 33% are Facebook friends with people they have not met in person. 

More teens are also getting access to uncensored internet.  Our schools, libraries, and most workplaces limit internet access.  My own hospital has filters for certain types of images and marketing.  But with the boom in mobile technology, teens are getting access to uncensored internet in increasing numbers.  Check out this data on Teens and Technology from the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard University:

  • 78% of teens now have a cell phone, and almost half (47%) of them own smartphones. That translates into 37% of all teens who have smartphones, up from just 23% in 2011.
  • 23% of teens have a tablet computer, a level comparable to the general adult population.
  • 95% of teens use the internet.
  • 93% of teens have a computer or have access to one at home. Seven in ten (71%) teens with home computer access say the laptop or desktop they use most often is one they share with other family members.


Looking at this data another way, about a quarter of teens don’t share their computer with family members and/or have a smart phone or tablet.  Are teens really old enough to have uncensored internet whenever and wherever they want?  Especially if they don’t seem very concerned about privacy? 


What’s really the risk to our children of being totally open, out there? 

  • You can’t take it back: Once it’s out there, your personal data, pictures, and stories can be very hard to get off the internet.  Do you want the whole world to know what you were like as a teen forever?
  • Directed marketing, lots of it: Teens are especially susceptible to marking.  The teen brain is not fully matured, causing teens to be famous for risk-taking behavior.  As online targeted marketing grows, it will be harder for them to resist the temptations.
  • Wasted time:  Online reputations take time to manage.  I tell my kids: time is your greatest gift—use it wisely. 
  • Cyperbullying : Nearly 43% of kids have been bullied online. 1 in 4 has had it happen more than once.  Bullying victims are more likely to commit suicide. 
  • Online sexual preditors: They are real, and they can be hard for law-enforcement to catch.  Be sure your kids never meet up in person with anyone they met online. 
  • Identity theft: According to PEW, 53% post their email addresses and 20% post their cell phone numbers online.   All an identity thief has to do is scrape your child’s birthday and photo from their Facebook account and the sky’s the limit…

What have you done to keep your kids safe online?  How old is old-enough for a smart phone with a data plan?  How do you monitor their online activities?   What’s your take-away from these new statistics?    Is online privacy a lost cause?