Protect Your Kids Online, or Protect their Privacy Online?

If you’ve got tweens or teens in the house, you know the worry of wondering if they’re going to be bullied – or bullying someone else – online, along with questions about whether they’ll succumb to scams or creepy adults masquerading as youngsters. Twenty five years ago, it was easy since the only interaction children were having in the digital world was through chat rooms on AOL and similar, but with the rise of social media, it’s a vast and complicated online world that’s rather designed to stymie us adults trying to keep track of things.

It’s ironic, really, that scammers can track people without a fuss, but us parents can’t so easily track our children’s adventures in the digital world.

But this begs the question: Do we need to do so? Given that our children can go to other places to jump online, I would suggest that the key step is to educate them and support them with their digital efforts, rather than paint it as a scary and dangerous place. Are there creeps and weirdos, along with oddly hostile peers? Yes. But they’re also at the local park, waiting at the bus stop, even peering into the school playground too.

The goal then is to create a safe environment for them where they can learn about what’s safe and what’s dangerous, along with building a relationship where they can ask you for advice, rather than hide everything away from you.


Having said that, I strongly believe that a child’s access to the Internet and social media should be framed as a privilege to earn and retain, not a basic human right that can be exploited or utilized even when they’re misbehaving or being defiant. Our approach was to create contracts with our children that spelled out their right to privacy but our right to overarching protection too. Passwords needed to be shared, but we never touched their phones unless they were in the room with us, for example.

It was an annual task to “go through the friend list” and ask them about the identity of people they were texting, sharing private social media access with, and interacting with through various other channels and services. Often it would be “oh, that’s the Uncle of my friend Joe”, to which we would reiterate our rule that they were only allowed to be friends online with their peers. Knowing the alternative was to lose access to their device, they would typically delete the contacts willingly. Their logic: They didn’t really want to interact with these digital strangers, but they lacked the courage to just cut that connection. With us in the loop, they had an excuse if anyone asked them what had happened.

teen boy on mobile phone at the dinner table

This approach worked really well with my children, though there were a few incidents where we saw increasingly suspicious activity on the part of our children and quickly hidden cellphone or computer screens that caused us to investigate further without them present. In both cases, it was warranted and a problematic interaction or new “friend” that we then had to discuss with them. Not fun, but part of the job of parenting in the 21st Century.

Key, I think, is that we honored their privacy throughout, and even when we were investigating those two incidents, we didn’t take advantage of our access to read all their texts or check all their social channels. Children do have some reasonable right to privacy.


As they got older, we expanded our discussions about risks and dangers online to talk about the more generic threats of large scale profiling, data collection, scammers, and sites likely to include malware or other malicious software “bonuses” for visiting. Tough topic because the idea that there are evil folk trying to cause trouble on your mobile device or computer is pretty abstract for most kids who aren’t aware beyond the boundaries of their own social circle. For that matter, most adults don’t really understand that there are bad actors – often funded by their governments – with the job of spreading misinformation and even criminal acts in the digital world.

This is not to mention that as our profiles become bigger and more comprehensive there are also threats from government agencies and law enforcement. Is it dangerous for a child to look up crimes that have taken place in their own school? No. Can that come back and seem suspicious when viewed out of context? You know it can. That’s why we adults should be cautious and thoughtful about our own privacy.

That’s also why I run a Virtual Private Network on my system whenever I’m on a public wifi network. Not because I’m doing unsavory things online, but because I want to retain my privacy while I am visiting my online bank, checking stocks, even emailing my friend about a life challenge they’re facing.

Turns out that some of the VPN companies are expanding their services to move into protecting our privacy in more ways than just encrypting traffic between our device and the Internet too. For example, I use ExpressVPN and it now has built-in protection for us adult Internet users, but our children too. Here’s what it can do to protect mobile devices:

expressvpn protection malware adult sites - mobile

These are all worth enabling on your children’s mobile devices, even if you think they’ll never go onto the Web and encounter bad or scary things. The sad reality is that they eventually will, or one of their friends will tease or entice them into checking out a “naughty” site “but don’t let your parents see!”.

Why not instead teach them to fire up their VPN so that they gain the benefit of privacy on their Internet interaction while you continue to talk with them about online safety and build a trust relationship that allows them the freedom to ask about weird or troubling interactions?

Unsure that they’ll use the VPN on their phone or computer? ExpressVPN has introduced a network router that has the VPN built into the firmware. Called the AirCove, if that’s how everyone gets onto the Internet at your house, well, they can’t really sidestep these protections, can they? Big benefit: It protects you too.

But that’s my take on things. How are you helping your children learn how to navigate the Internet safely, including social media? Do you trust them or do you think protecting them online is your fulltime job? If so, how do you respectfully manage it with their cooperation?

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