5 Ways To Shrink Your Child’s Digital Footprint

By Christina Elston

parenting - protect digital privacyYalda Uhls understands how much you want to Instagram those adorable photos of your toddler on the potty. Really, she does. And the mom of a 13-year-old girl and a 10-year-old boy is happy that Instagram wasn’t around when her children were small.

“I have the cutest picture of my daughter and her friend in the bathtub,” says Uhls, senior scientific researcher at The Children’s Digital Media Center@LA at UCLA. “Maybe I would have shared it. Thank God I didn’t have that option.”

According to Uhls, author of “Media Moms & Digital Dads,” 81 percent of kids have a digital footprint before they are 2 years old. And a child’s digital privacy – or lack of it – starts out in the hands of his or her parents. Here are a few steps she advises moms and dads to take to help their children navigate the digital world without sharing too much.


Keep baby pictures private.

The beginnings of your child’s digital footprint were likely created by you, and it probably all started with a photo. Most parents post pictures of their newborns on Facebook and chronicle other childhood moments, but they don’t necessarily think about the fact that those photos are archived, and can be seen by others years down the road.

Posting that funny video of your naked toddler running through the sprinklers in your back yard might seem fine now, but do you want it to still be there and available to the world when your child is 18 or 20 years old? “You just have to think long-term,” says Uhls. “Being careful and respectful of your child is really important. Even if your children buy in, you’ve got to think about it.”

Guard location information.

Do you really need the whole world to know where you and your kids are every minute? If the geo locator on your phone or your child’s is turned on and you are posting on social media, you are broadcasting your location to everyone who sees your feed. “Somebody can track you down with that if they want to,” says Uhls, who recommends turning that feature off.

Even if you do, however, your social media feed might be leaving a trail. For instance, if you are posting photos of a recognizable location (maybe the playground at the park you visit with your child each afternoon), you are offering information someone could use to find you. Wearables such as Fitbit and Apple watch can also track your location. And if you’re sharing vacation photos during your trip, you’re telling the world you are not at home.

Watch out for social blunders.

parenting - protect digital privacyIf your child is having a party and you or your child post about it on social media, those photos or videos tell everyone you know who was – and wasn’t – invited. That could lead to hurt feelings and awkward conversations later. If you are hosting kids old enough to have phones of their own, Uhls recommends asking them to leave their phones in a box near the door so that no one is tempted to snap and share.

Social media and text messaging also make it far too easy to send hurtful or potentially embarrassing words and images. Whether a child is goofing around with friends and takes an embarrassing photo or types an angry comment in the heat of an argument, once those things are out there where their friends and family (and maybe even their grandmother!) can see them, you can’t take them back. “Count to 10 before you hit send, and just think about it,” is Uhls’ advice.

Talk about the Internet’s reach.

When you communicate online, you are communicating with more people than you think. “Parents and kids don’t consider other people sharing the information,” Uhls says. You share a post you assume will only go to friends and family, but that post can also show up on other people’s feeds. Even Snapchat photos can be frozen, saved and forwarded. A site’s privacy settings can’t protect you from this type of sharing.

At Uhls’ daughter’s school, a fellow student made up a racially offensive rap and shared it with a few friends. But someone put the rap on Instagram and the whole school community saw it. A petition was launched asking school officials to expel the girl, and she ended up having to withdraw from the school.

When you hear about these types of incidents, from others or in the media, talk about them with your kids to help them see how far the Internet can reach. “Make them aware that anyone, anywhere in the world, can see something once it’s posted on the Internet,” says Uhls. “Do it as innocuously as you can, though, not in the middle of a lecture.”

Remember that sites are tracking.

Yalda T. Uhls, Ph.D., serves as the senior scientific researcher at The Children’s Digital Media Center@LA at UCLA. She is the author of “Media Moms & Digital Dads: A Fact-Not-Fear Approach to Parenting In the Digital Age.” PHOTO COURTESY YALDA UHLS

Yalda T. Uhls, Ph.D., serves as the senior scientific researcher at The Children’s Digital Media Center@LA at UCLA. She is the author of “Media Moms & Digital Dads: A Fact-Not-Fear Approach to Parenting In the Digital Age.” PHOTO COURTESY YALDA UHLS

The Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act prohibits sites from collecting information on anyone under age 13. For this reason, most social media sites require users to be at least 13 years old. However, many parents allow their kids to create social media accounts before they are 13, and companies are collecting data from and targeting advertising toward those kids. “Anything you put up there is being sold to third parties,” Uhls reminds parents.

Ads at the border of a social-media site and “promoted” posts are one thing, but social media also includes subtle types of advertising that your kids might not understand. For instance, Uhls remembers her daughter showing her an Instagram account run by “this great couple.” Ulhs took a look and figured out that the couple had been fictitiously created in order to sell a company’s products. “The advertising is so embedded it’s not intrusive,” she says.

Uhls urges parents to talk with their kids about privacy from the very beginning. “You start as soon as you hand them any device, and then you just keep repeating it,” she says. Keep it age appropriate, and tackle new issues as they emerge. And if your child makes a mistake, which Uhls says is to be expected, use it as a teachable moment.

And don’t forget to spend some time in the moment – and teach your kids to do the same. Put the phone down now and again. Enjoy a bit of privacy and don’t take pictures of every little thing. “When you take pictures, you tend to share them,” says Uhls, adding that your social media sharing sets an example for your children. “They will quickly pick up what you’re doing and they will want your device.”

Christina Elston is Editor of L.A. Parent.

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  1. This is great, but it should’ve been added that pedophilia is an EPIDEMIC… so is child sex trafficking.
    THAT will scare the heck out of parents and get some compliance. Sharon Bautista, R.N.

    • Thanks, Sharon! It’s true that these are serious issues and people never think these things could happen to their child.

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