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How To Teach Kids about Internet Privacy

Teens computer

Cookies, Third Parties, Log File Information, User Content...these are terms that every Internet user should know and understand. You'll find them in the "Privacy Policy" and "Terms of Agreement" of every app, website, or service online. Thing is, most Internet users willingly agree to the policies and terms of the sites and services they use without reading either... or even understanding what they are agreeing to.

And that's a crying shame.

We hope to change this through our Cyber Civics classes. How? By guiding students through seven sequential lessons that explain how and why personal information is collected online, what apps and sites do with that information and, more importantly, how these services customize the information and ads they give us in return. Understanding how this process works helps kids from falling prey to the "filter bubble" problem that most adults find themselves in.

Filter Bubble: A state of intellectual isolation that can result from personalized searches when a website algorithm selectively guesses what information a user would like to see based on information about the user, such as location, past click-behavior and search history.

But first you've got to capture students' attention.

Lesson 1

“Kids, a team of researchers will be coming to your school to monitor your every move. These observers will record where you go (including the restroom, lunch area, playground, etc.), how much time you spend there, whom you talk to, and what you do. The results of this research will help your school administrator customize the school to better meet your needs.”

This is the announcement our teachers deliver on the first day of the "Privacy and Personal Information" unit of lessons. It's fun to watch as 7th grade faces transform from uninterested to curious to disbelieving and, finally, to outrage. They tell you what they think about this too:

"It's creepy!"

"This is an invasion of my privacy!"

"What are they going to do with my personal information?"

Okay, by now you see where this is going. There’s no research company. But this lesson on “Privacy,” which we found years ago in Common Sense Media’s digital citizenship curriculum, does get their attention. When students learn that this invasion of their privacy isn’t actually going to happen at their school, but is happening every day in a place where they spend more time than in school -- cyberspace -- well, let’s just say they aren’t thrilled. But they are eager to learn more.

Lessons 2-7

The next lessons have students pouring through the privacy policies and terms of agreement of the apps they use most--Snapchat and Instagram--searching for the terms at the top of this post. This is boring, tedious work...but they dive in with tenacity. Often they are shocked at some of the things they find. For example:

7th Grader: "Did you know that Instagram can share your personal information as well as information from cookies, log files, and device identifiers and location data, with third-parties? Dang. I wish I'd known that!"

Understanding this information certainly makes kids think twice about the apps they were previously so enamored with. After this lesson, students explore how customized ads are delivered based on previous web searches ("Also creepy"). Then they learn what steps they can take to protect their personal information online. Next comes the lesson they have the most fun with, imagining they are app-designers who have to decide what data they'll collect from their users. And, finally, they learn about the first line of defense when it comes to protecting personal information--an effective password (which I wrote about previously here).

Why Does This Stuff Matter?

Understanding how to protect personal information online not only helps keep kids safe, it makes them better citizens. How? They will get a more well-rounded view of the world if their future newsfeeds and social media sites aren't littered with information that those sites think they want to see. Plus, in a few short years these kids will be able to vote. Maybe they’ll actually pay attention to (and understand) privacy-related legislation that is sure to move through Congress. Maybe they'll decide its a good idea to restrict social media apps and websites from gaining access to so much of their data. Or maybe they’ll decide they like their information perfectly designed to meet their needs.

Whatever they decide, at least they’ll be informed citizens of their digital world.

Diana Graber is founder Cyber Civics and co-founder of of A long-time media producer with an M.A. in “Media Psychology & Social Change,” she is also a regular contributor to the HuffPost and others. In addition to serving as an Adjunct Professor of Media Psychology at the graduate level, she teaches middle school Cyber Civics classes at Journey School in Southern California. Graber was recently honored with the “2017 Media Literacy Teacher” award from the National Association of Media Literacy Education (NAMLE). Cyber Civics is currently being taught in public and private Waldorf school across the US, Canada, and the U.K.

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