The Importance of Digital Privacy For Families

With the rise of digital technology, the lines between public and private have blurred and become infinitely more complicated. In our modern culture, we face a persuasive, incremental loss of privacy due to the expansion of social and digital media and technological advancements (such as smartphones, Internet cookies, GPS-enabled devices, and voice-controlled intelligent personal assistant services). Many Australian families feel left with little or no choice but to give in and willingly disclose information online in order to participate in the modern world.

For previous generations, the traditional notion and understanding of privacy were clear-cut with easy to follow rules: privacy was about keeping your private life separate from your public life [1]. Parents could simply teach children to avoid talking to strangers and privacy would be effectively maintained. However, with the rise of digital environments, especially the Internet and social media, this advice is insufficient. Furthermore, it’s near impossible to completely ‘opt out’ of activities that may compromise your family’s privacy. Children and parents now face new dangers such as cyberbullying, child grooming, identity theft, social media and email personal data being compromised. It’s important to understand as a family how you can make conscious choices to protect and take control of your privacy. This article aims to provide your family with a practical guide to find the right balance between privacy and online sharing.

Why is digital privacy important?

Digital privacy is important for all families. In the digital world, young people are now at a higher risk of sharing information or having information shared about them online that endangers their well-being [2]. Constant access to social media effectively creates an inescapable public record of online behaviour, which may have future consequences for their employment prospects or legal complications [2]. Without an understanding of the importance of digital privacy, your child may inadvertently divulge personal information on their social media profile that leaves them vulnerable to child grooming efforts by strangers [1]. They may even face social ostracism from their peer group if a cyberbully posts a compromising image or conversation online [3]. All of these dangers make preserving digital privacy an important goal.

What’s the right balance between privacy and online sharing?

Family members of different ages may have dissimilar beliefs and approaches to digital privacy. While parents may believe teens’ willingness to share in public spaces such as social media shows a lack of concern for privacy, many teens report caring deeply about privacy in a different way to adults [4]. Teens simultaneously value participation on social media and covet personal privacy from authority figures [1]. Unlike many adults, they do not view the goals of privacy and sharing online as contradictory [1]. When designing a plan to achieve strong safety through digital privacy, it’s important to discuss and consider each family member’s perspective and incorporate differing viewpoints so any solution is balanced and workable for everyone.

What steps can I take to protect my family’s digital privacy?

Maintaining digital privacy is a collaborative effort that families need to decide upon and manage together. This collaborative effort should ideally involve active learning about best practice for online privacy and ongoing, open conversations about how to protect privacy and navigate the web safely. It’s important to negotiate an approach so everyone is comfortable with the approach [3], giving each family member the opportunity to ask questions, clarify their understanding of why online privacy matters and contribute ideas. This will foster goodwill, decrease resistance, and empower each family member to make good choices to protect their privacy online. We recommend the following as starting points for a family conversation about how to preserve digital privacy:

#1 Use strict privacy settings in apps and browsers

Strong online privacy starts with strong privacy settings. Children and teenagers will likely use a mobile, tablet or desktop browser to access their favourite websites and entertainment. However, without adjusting the default browser settings, they will automatically share personal information about their Internet usage with the websites they visit. Similarly, many apps will harvest personal data without explicit permission [2]. The clear recommendation is to read all privacy policies carefully before signing up for new apps. However, we recognise that this may not be practical in all cases, as it’s not uncommon for terms and conditions to be unreasonably long and complex, creating a purposeful barrier that leads both adult and younger readers to click ‘agree’ through apathy or confusion. We strongly recommend preventing apps from accessing unnecessary personal information that is not required for the app to function [2]. Regularly review browser and app privacy settings with young family members and demonstrate how to set browsers and apps to the strongest privacy setting.

#2 Use strong passwords and enable two-factor authentication

Using multiple strong passwords with two-factor authentication is an important step to prevent unwanted users from gaining access to online accounts [2]. Educate each family member on the importance of choosing a strong password and frequently updating it. The easiest way to make your password both memorable and secure is to use an unusual combination of real words or phrases with personal relevance, spelt incorrectly to incorporate capital and lowercase letters, numbers and special characters [2]. Ideally, use multiple passwords, rather than relying on just one password for all online accounts. Consider using a password manager or vault software to help you compile and remember your password. For an extra layer of security, online accounts should employ two-factor authentication [2]. Two-factor authentication will stop hackers from accessing your account by sending a unique, time-sensitive code to your phone if it detects a login from an unfamiliar device [2]. Encouraging family members to use a strong password with two-factor authentication will keep your family’s accounts secure from most attacks.

#3 Use antivirus protection

Although they do not offer foolproof protection, antivirus protection software is a must for protecting your family’s digital devices from most online threats, including viruses and malicious software which may be downloaded to your devices without your or your child’s knowledge [2]. We advise purchasing reputable antivirus software brands such as McAfee or Norton Security and avoiding free antivirus software as this can carry harmful malware [2]. Make it a regular practice within your family to scan every device for viruses and other threats [2].

#4 Do not use unsecured Wi-Fi networks

Although convenient, unsecured Wi-Fi networks are notorious for allowing hackers to sneak in and hijack personal devices without your knowledge [2]. To avoid exposing your family to this risk, teach your children to connect only to secure Wi-Fi networks they know are safe (signalled by a lock sign and password), or else use their mobile’s own data plan [2]. This is especially important when making online purchases or transmitting sensitive data. A secure VPN (virtual private network) on your device like Wangle VPN can provide a way of securing your communications when using Wi-Fi.

#5 Turn off location services

Location tracking on social media means that young people are much more likely to accidentally reveal their physical location to social media contacts, including people they don’t know well. Actively encourage family members to turn off location services whenever possible to keep their location safe, both in the phone settings and in the apps they use. This will prevent social media from automatically tagging their updates and photos with their location. If your child or teen raises objections, calmly talk through the risks and why this is necessary for their safety and wellbeing.

#6 Do not let apps share data 

Mobile apps frequently require access to information on your phone to run. However, unless the information is critical for the app to function, encourage your children to prevent the app from accessing this data. This may include accessing your contacts, location, photos, music or calendar [2]. It may be possible to let the app access some of what it requests while blocking access to sensitive information that you do not want your child to share [2].

#7 Be cautious with social media

Most social media apps do not come with strong privacy protections as default. As with browsers and app privacy settings, it is recommended that families take a proactive approach to setting up strong privacy settings on social media accounts before sharing anything on these platforms. To accomplish this, sign into each of your social media accounts and check the level of privacy afforded by each setting, adjusting if necessary. Discuss the process with your children to demonstrate why it is important to keep track of this information [2].

Many modern apps allow a convenient, instant sign in by connecting through your Facebook or Google username and password. However, it is important to read the fine print to understand what information will be shared by linking these accounts. Children should understand that even if they limit what is shared with a third party, the social network will automatically track their behaviour [2].

If you would like to restrict the information that Google or Facebook collects about your family, it is possible to do so. To restrict Google’s collection of online data, sign into each Google account your family owns and adjust the privacy settings through Google’s Privacy Checkup tool. To stop Google from tracking your location, device information, and web and app activity, simply visit the Activity page and switch off any information you do not wish to share.  For Facebook, click Settings, then Privacy, to limit the audience for posts you’ve shared with friends, to restrict who can look you up using your email address or phone number, and review what other people can see on your timeline.

Finally, make sure everyone in your family understands the importance of sharing social media posts with care. What children choose to share online leaves a digital footprint that could easily follow them into their adult lives with potential future employment or legal consequences. Any information that is shared publicly on social media can be used to steal an identity or for child grooming purposes. Simple preventative measures, such as reminding your child not to share their date of birth on their profile or answer social media polls and images that use entertainment as a guise to ask users for personal information. Encourage your child to think carefully about what they choose to post online, including thoughts, messages and images that expose their personal information or may impact another’s welfare.

#8 Beware of phishing scams

A phishing scam is an attempt by hackers to steal sensitive information such as usernames, passwords, and credit card details by pretending to be a trustworthy entity through electronic communication, such as emails. It often leads to unfortunate circumstances such as identity theft or misappropriated funds [2]. To protect your family from phishing scams, warn family members to avoid opening emails, texts, online security alerts, or text notifications from people they do not know, recognise or were not expecting [2].

#9 Use monitoring software

Most parents naturally understand the importance of actively guiding their children to practice safe online habits, especially when they may not have the experience or maturity to make responsible and safe choices. Monitoring software encourages children to think more carefully about how they act and present themselves online, partly because they are aware they are being monitored by parents [6]. If you decide to use monitoring software within your family, we strongly recommend maintaining transparency about how you will use it to help your family manage privacy risks together [3].

#10 Keep conversations open

Throughout the process of building awareness about digital privacy in your family, it’s important to keep conversations open and flexible, listening with empathy to your child’s needs and concerns. Encourage them to ask you if they are unsure about anything. Check in regularly and encourage regular healthy discussions about privacy and online safety. Do your best to stay connected, involved, and interested in each family member’s digital life. Understand the online environments your children live and play in, and observe how their use of technology evolves over time.

Final thoughts

Maintaining strong digital privacy is a key issue for many families. Setting up good digital privacy practices is a collaborative effort that families are encouraged to undertake together, setting up sensible safeguards and encouraging open, active discussion on online privacy as the family’s technology use evolves. While family members may have conflicting ideas about privacy, it’s possible to build a mutual understanding of why digital privacy matters and help everyone understand best practice.



Related Articles