Looking back over the years of having digitally active children, one of the best choices I made was to show my children from the beginning the dangers of over-sharing. I remember when my daughter asked me for Instagram and after it passed the app test, (it was NOT a social site back then, but we will discuss that in a different post) and before I let her run wild with it, taking and posting photos to the web for all the world to see, I did a few things and made a short training lesson for her. Here is what I did and why.
The first thing I did was to have a conversation with her about WHY she wanted it. At the time it was just a repository for photos. You could make an account, choose who had access to your account and then upload photos to the account. People who were allowed access, could browse your photos, maybe comment on them. It was a simpler time… Anyways, during this conversation, she relayed to me several well thought out, valid reasons why a healthy happy teen girl might want to share photos and so we proceeded to discuss what was appropriate to share. Now we all obviously know what comes to mind first when someone mentions a teen girl posting photos on the Internet, and frankly, I have never had an issue with her being provocative or scandalous, so even though our conversation hit that topic, it did not stop there or even focus there. What we discussed when we had our talk was what data was contained in and with the photo. She was required to turn location information off on the photos she posted so that no one could track her or map her from the GPS data that is attached to most smart-phone photos.
Before we continue with the lesson I had with my daughter, I want to take a moment and explain WHY it is important to turn location services off for the camera app or remove location data from photos before children post them. (I do NOT recommend turning all location services off on your child’s device as they are very handy for other things like locating your child, or finding a device they lost…but that will be covered in future posts…)
Every photo taken by every device containing both a camera and a GPS attach location data to the photo. Most photo library programs, like Photos for Mac, Adobe Lightroom, and Google Photos have a simple toggle feature to turn off location data in the photos. Also, since I had this chat with my girl, many services and apps including Instagram, Facebook and Twitter have changed their product to automatically strip out location data unless you upload to a specific mapping feature in the service (in Instagram that is ‘Photo Map’). The danger with GPS tagging children’s photos is that it makes it very easy for anyone who wants to, and has access to those photos to build a map of the area the children tends to be in, it can easy show patterns of travel, behavior, and even with a small amount of work, provide a fairly accurate map of a school, or home, including layouts of rooms and furniture. If you think for a moment what a less than reputable person could do with such data, say for instance a map of the path your child walks home, a map of the inside of your home including obstacles, security and family members and pets, add to that data the relative times that the child is in each of those locations and it becomes a very serious security risk for parents and a real danger to children. I am not an expert on this subject and I am not paranoid, but it was a big enough concern for me that I discussed it with my children and took some simple steps, like educating my kids to the potential issue and helping them sanitize the connected data on their photos. If you want more info regarding this topic, just Google ‘Children location data photos’ and click on some of the more reputable sites. This has been well covered by many news organizations like ABC News, the New York Times and the Washington Post. They did a much better and more thorough job dissecting it than I can so I will leave it at that. Back to the lesson…
After we were on the same page with location data and the dangers of it, and she was thinking about more than a duck-face or her makeup in the photo, we proceeded to step two.
We talked about what data was in the foreground and background and was it safe to share. For this part of the lesson I took my own smart-phone and over the course of a few days staged many photos, some completely sanitized for the web and some that had hidden data in the photo. I made a quiz for her (which she thought was stupid..) and she took it, identifying which photos were safe to post and which were not. Some of the photos that I staged were shots of flower arrangements on the table or counter, but with prescription bottles from the family pet in the background behind the subject. Some were photos of games or children playing, but with other uninvolved people reflected in mirrors or other surfaces innocuously in the edges of the shot. I took candid photos of family members that were completely harmless, but some that were less than flattering or embarrassing. I shot cityscapes that contained candid photos of strangers. One was a photos of a beautiful dinner plate, but with an envelope showing our mailing address off on the side. I included photos with our home from an angle that you could see the address in the background, photos of her brothers but with their school in the background, photos that included her mothers license plate in the side of the photo. Basically anything I could think of that could be used to track, locate, stalk or otherwise make one of us or someone else feel violated, uncomfortable or self conscious. I mixed these in with similar photos that were completely sanitary. After I had amassed a volume of photos, I put together a little slideshow with a corresponding quiz book so that she could answer questions and make comments on each photo, if it were acceptable, if not, why and any thoughts she had regarding them. When she took the quiz, I was amazed at how close to my thinking on each item she already was. I was expecting her as an impetuous tween girl to just post pictures without thinking about any content or any consequences, but even before I explained my thinking and rules to her, she was already way ahead of where I thought she would be. There were some items that she missed, some things she hadn’t thought of, but for the most part, she would have been quite fine without my help. This is one place where as a father, I often expect my children to be helpless and completely ill equipped. Maybe I don’t trust them as much as I should, or maybe I still see them as helpless little toddlers, but I should more often realize that I have done a good job preparing them for life and they are very smart in their own right. I often need to remind myself that the reason for all this care and thoughtful training is so that they are prepared to handle life on their own… I digress… After she was done with the slides and worksheet, we went over them one by one. I made a point of not being negative, not beating her up over the ones she missed, but instead making those the starting point of the conversation, focusing on WHY they were not approved, how there were elements in them that seemed innocuous and how those things made the photo seem safe to post, but what was present that made in questionable. Two great and important things came from this. First, I realized that she really was already paying very close attention to the details and that gave me a lot of faith and confidence to let her have the app and be free in the world with it. Second, it showed her exactly what our expectations were so that she could more easily meet them.
This brings me to a sub-point that I will not stray to far onto but needs to be mentioned. In raising my children, more often than not, when they do something I don’t approve of, it is as much a failure of mine to properly convey my expectations as it is them trying to ‘get away with something’. Most of the stress factors between us and our children can be attributed as often to bad communication as to bad behavior. More times than not my children are trying as much as I am to keep life easy and happy. For the most part, they really want to please us and make us happy. They thrive on praise and wilt when criticized. With this in mind, back to the lesson…
When she and I sat down and discussed the ideas of safety and privacy, of respecting ourselves and the people around us in a positive way it was very simple to agree on some use standards and to see that we both wanted the same things. I was reassured that she would be a responsible Instagram citizen and she was more aware of some possible dangers she had previously not thought of and was reminded of best privacy and security practices on the public internet. Now what should go next is “and we all Instagramed happily ever after..” This is not the case. While we did have a happy continuing, (we still use instagram, so we arent to the end yet) there was one thing I hadn’t thought of that quickly came into play.
As a parent, we can only respond to the stimuli available to us at the time of the response. We can anticipate many things, but in the world of the internet, of computers and devices and an ever changing landscape of social interaction via the web, we really never know what will be next. In the case of Instagram, only a few weeks after our lesson and my approval of her use, Instagram made what I consider a core change. They became a full social platform, with friends, and likes and invites and comments and a whole world of interaction that frankly scared the heck out of me. This is where I learned my hardest lesson of the app store. Once you allow an app, you really have NO WAY to take it back away. Keep this in mind moving forward. I touched on this back in an earlier post when I mentioned allowing apps for one child on the family share. While allowing these apps is solely at your discretion, taking them back away is nearly impossible. I will dive deeper into this in a later post.
I am mentioning this for two reasons, first, I am NOT perfect. I am writing all this down incase some of it helps or inspires you, not to show you a perfect plan. There is no perfect plan. I walked down this path with deep thought, conviction, education and research, and I walked right into this wall. So will you, hopefully not this one, hopefully I have helped you avoid this one, but there will be a wall, somewhere, and you will bang your nose when you walk straight into it. Second, I learned thru this that everything will be OK. I was backdoored by an app and my thoughtful prized parenting was thrown wide open and the world didn’t end. My daughter is a champ. I taught her well and she was equipped and prepared. Even in a different environment than I approved and prepared her for, she was a pro. Did she have issues with things online, yes. Did it ruin it for her or damage her, Not at all. When she had a overly amorous follower, she dealt with it. At one point she even canceled her own account and started a different one so that she could have a do-over and have more control of the people she interacted with. Because I had been upfront about my concern and her safety, and I had been positive and not condemning, she was upfront with me and never hesitated to discuss options, ask questions and get my input when she did feel like she needed it. In a nutshell, because I trained her to be and then encouraged her to be, she is becoming a trustworthy and responsible citizen of the internet.
Categories: Kids and Tech