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Setting Up Young Children for Safe Online Learning

Setting Up Young Children for Safe Online Learning

By Samantha Cleaver

When Monica McMahon, mom of a kindergartener in Charlotte, N.C., realized that school was going to be at home through mid-May because of COVID-19, she quickly updated her son’s device with education programs.

McMahon looked for apps that were more education than game, and that had the Common Sense Media seal of approval.

With more than 55.1 million children at home as schools nationwide are closed, McMahon and many other parents are quickly looking for online programs that will educate and engage their young children while in-person instruction is paused and, often, while parents must work.

Creating an online account for your child is easy enough. Enter your email, password, and click through the privacy and user policies.

With kids home because of coronavirus closings, now is the time to check and set privacy settings on apps that your child will be using and choose apps that keep privacy in mind. 

Data Your Child Produces

McMahon worried about the type of experience that her 6-year-old son would have on the programs she downloaded. It’s important to fret about the data that’s being sent back to apps as well.

“Don’t just worry about what the child is consuming,” said Denise Tayloe, CEO and founder of Privo, which provides privacy compliance and consent solutions for companies, “but the data they are producing.”

As your child works through a program, the company may collect persistent identifier information, such as a number that’s linked to your computer or devices and serial numbers.

Each identifier can give a picture of what the users are doing over time: when the app was opened, which buttons your child clicked and when, and how they progressed through the app.

From this data, a picture of how your child on the app can be recreated.

It’s, essentially, “a dossier of perceived interests that can be circulated to advertisers,” said Serge Egelman, director of usable security and privacy with the International Computer Science Institute at the University of California at Berkeley.

Over time, companies collect this information to help drive advertising.

Signing Up Safely

Educational platforms aimed at young children don’t collect much data, Privo’s Tayloe told Digital Privacy News.

While the U.S. Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act prohibits collecting and using information from products that target children under age 13, adherence to that law is not consistent.

Egelman and his team at UC-Berkeley, found, for instance, that more than half of children’s apps violated online privacy protection laws in some way.

Here’s how to ensure the apps your child uses are safe:

You can quickly figure out if an educational program has paid attention to privacy by searching its privacy policy for the word “child,” said Max Bleyleben, managing director and chief privacy officer at SuperAwesome, which provides technology solutions for kid-safe digital engagement. Check to see whether the policy acknowledges that children are using the app and that they are having a safe experience. See whether the app’s maker is selling data to other companies.

Look for what information companies say they collect. “A lot of platforms collect information that’s not needed to perform the service,” Bleyleben told Digital Privacy News.

For example, programs may collect what seems like innocuous data, like contact information. But, says Amelia Vance, Director of Youth and Education Privacy Project at the Future of Privacy Forum, this may be shared widely, and is sensitive information.

Even after you’ve read the privacy policy and are satisfied with the parameters, still lock down as many privacy settings as you can.

Samantha Cleaver is an education writer in Charlotte, N.C.

Sources: Interviews