Ep 112: Consequences of Your Teen’s Digital Footprint

Episode Summary

Leah Plunkett, author of Sharenthood, joins Andy for a discussion on the consequences and benefits of our teens’ extensive digital footprint. We leave more data behind us than we think–who is using it and for what purposes?

Show NotesParenting ScriptsInterview TranscriptGuest Bio

Full Show Notes

It’s not always easy to know what to share about your kids online. You might want to celebrate how cute they look in a Winnie the Pooh Halloween costume by posting a picture on instagram, or share your grievances on Facebook when they just won’t stop wetting the bed. When you decide to snap that pic or type that post however, you might be doing more damage to your kid’s future and reputation than you realize.

Today we’re talking about how, even when parents have the best intentions, they may submit their kids to certain risks by posting information online. So much of your information can be found and used online in ways that can be harmful to your children, ways you might not even expect. Although social media can be a great place to share and socialize with friends and family, extra vigilance about your kid’s internet  presence is becoming more and more necessary as it becomes cheaper and easier for companies and individuals to collect your data.

In this episode, we’re sitting down with Leah Plunkett, author of Sharenthood: Why We Should Think Before We Talk about Our Kids Online. Leah serves as a Faculty Affiliate at the Berkman Klein Center for Internet and Society at Harvard University, and is a leading expert on digital privacy and data collection, especially among young folks. Leah’s expertise on digital media, privacy, and adolescence make for an eye-opening interview about how you can guide yourself and your kids towards more responsible, literate use of the online landscape.  

Leah and I discuss a broad range of topics, covering everything from why your kids might be affected by your seemingly innocuous facebook posts, what information is at risk of being collected and exploited from your online activity, and whether or not parents should consider implementing surveillance technology to spy on their teen’s internet behavior.

Why You Should Watch What You Share

As a parent, it can be really rewarding to log on and share what your kids are up to; it gives you the chance to chat with other parents and include your friends and family in your child’s growth! However, there are some things Leah says you might want to be aware of before you hit post…because when something goes online there’s a chance that it can never truly be erased. 

For starters, posting a picture of your kid with frosting all over their face and down their shirt might seem pretty cute to you, but could potentially embarrass them down the line. Although this may not seem super obvious when kids are still young, bullies can emerge as your kid reaches adolescence, bullies who might be on the prowl for images and facts about your teen that can be used to humiliate them. Leah suggests taking some time to think about how what you post might come around to bite your kid in the butt in a few years.

There are also some frightening figures online who can use information about your kids for nefarious purposes. By sharing data about a kid’s whereabouts, their likes and dislikes, what they fear or where they hang out, you may be submitting that information to dangerous folks who lurk on the internet. Now, this doesn’t mean you should immediately sound the alarm and remove every trace of your kid’s existence from Facebook, but there are some ways you can moderate your posts to ensure your kid is safe from these internet predators. Leah and I talk more about this in the episode.

The bottom line is that kids are generally too young to consent to being posted about and shared on the web, so Leah says it’s important to take some serious caution about how and where they are portrayed. While you may only have the best intentions, there are always ways your kid’s data could be used to harm them. This goes beyond just cyberbullying or internet predators, with big tech likely collecting huge amounts of data on you and your kids in recent times and using it for all sorts of purposes.

The Dark Truth About Data Collection

You may have heard that companies like Facebook and Google could be collecting some of your data and using it to give you personalized content or targeted ads–but are you aware of just how much data all sorts of companies are gathering about you and your family? 

Leah dives into just how much information companies are collecting, and how they’re using it. Surprisingly, companies can collect data from things as seemingly innocent as the learning software that your kids use at school, or games they download and play on their phones. Frustratingly, there is not a cohesive location, method or protocol for people to find out how their data is being used. 

By collecting data about kids online tendencies, attitudes, and habits, companies are able to understand how your child thinks and behaves. This information can then be used in decisions about whether to hire them or grant them admission to college when they grow up. There are hiring companies that harness and combine all of this data to know how well an individual will perform as an employee. When faced with a large pool of applicants, businesses can pay to find out who is the best candidate for the job, and who can be disqualified.

Although this might worry you, don’t fret. Leah and I discuss possible solutions to this issue in the episode, talking about specific ways companies can become more accountable in the future  for the spread of your data.  You might  also be wondering, however, how you can talk to your teen about all this, and if you should step in to monitor their online activity. Luckily, Leah’s got some answers for you.

Why Surveilling Your Child Might Not Be The Answer

When you become aware of just how much data about your kid is up for collection, it can be tempting to install software that controls what media your kid engages with and how much time they spend browsing the web. However, Leah recommends refraining from doing so, as this teaches them a damaging lesson–that surveillance is a natural part of interacting with the online space. 

Instead, Leah suggests having open and value-based discussions with them about media literacy and their media usage. Although you might feel nervous or unsure about how to approach them about these ideas, Leash stresses how essential these talks can be. She and I chat more in the episode about specific ways you can initiate this kind of discussion and methods you can use to guide your teen away from potentially risky internet behavior.

According to Leah, the important thing is making sure your kids have the agency and the ability to make their own judgments about what’s safe and what’s not. When it comes down to it, that’s what matters most about helping keep our kids safe online. We want them to grow up independent and free to follow their chosen path in life, without data collection or negative online forces getting in the way. By making sure our kids can protect themselves, we give them the gift of a safe future.

In the Episode…

It was very eye-opening to chat with Leah this week about the many dangers kids face online. On top of the topics mentioned above, we talk about:

  • How to talk to kids who know more about the internet than you do
  • What content teens should NOT be posting on social media
  • Why we should be familiar with the “doctrine of the attractive nuisance” 
  • How we can harness  data collection in a positive way

If you enjoyed this episode, don’t forget to review, subscribe, and/or share us with a friend. Happy listening!

Parenting Scripts

Word-for-word examples of what to say to your teen

1. Let your teen know safety isn’t knowing where they are, but that they can handle life: (1 of 2) 

“First of all no one should be spying on, including mom and dad. Second, I’m not concerned about where you are, I’m concerned about you looking both ways when you cross the street.”

-Leah Plunkett

2. Let your teen know safety isn’t knowing where they are, but that they can handle life: (2 of 2)

(Members Only)

3. Remind your teen it’s normal to change who they are:

(Members Only)

4. Encourage your teen to be true to who they are when posting online:

(Members Only)

5. Get your teen to take the long view when posting on social media sites:

(Members Only)

Complete Interview Transcript

Andy: Sharenthood. What the heck is that? And why is it important? Why is it so important that you went and wrote this book that I mean is very well researched. You spend a lot of time, there’s an extensive notes section in here. This is not something you just kind of put together willy nilly off the cuff. So how did you get interested in this topic? What is it and why does it matter?

Leah: I got interested in the concept of sharenthood or sharenting because I became a mom right around the same time that I joined the Berkman Klein Center for Internet and Society at Harvard University as part of their research team that focuses on youth and media issues, which includes privacy. And I was initially researching schools and school privacy, which is extremely important, but I began to realize Andy, that as I was looking at what schools were doing and the way laws were changing that related to schools, that I was going home from my work and posting on Facebook myself, or looking at posts that I was receiving on my Facebook newsfeed. And I’m thinking, gosh, we parents, as well as grandparents, aunts, uncles and other trusted adults in kids’ lives, we are just putting a whole lot of information out there that is way more private and in some cases embarrassing than the schools are putting out in most instances.

Leah: So then I got curious. And the term sharenting or sharent or sharenthood, which was added to the dictionary this year I recently saw, is defined as the ways in which parents post about kids on social media. That is the more narrow and more common definition. The way I define it in my book is broader. I define sharenting as all the ways that not just parents, but also grandparents, teachers, aunts, uncles, coaches, neighbors, et cetera, all the ways that all of these adults transmit children’s private information on digital technologies. So posting on Facebook or other social media, far and away the most obvious example.

Leah: But Andy, anytime that we are giving our kids an educational app or using an Alexa or Siri, or putting a tracker on them, or even giving them a watch that measures their steps, if that device or service is acquiring, storing, transmitting, analyzing, resharing their private information because of a choice that we as the adults in their lives made, then we are engaging in my book literally and metaphorically in sharenting. And it matters because it is ubiquitous. When I started researching this topic, it was actually a little bit hard to know what research terms to look up, because sharenting was just something that, well, gosh, it’s just a thing that people do. It’s not really a topic and it’s certainly not really a concern. So, why do we even give it a name? But because it’s so ubiquitous, it was time to really drill down into it.

Andy: And you point out that this can start even before birth. We can post a picture of the ultrasound, hey, wow, excited. It’s a boy, check it out. Or, birth certificate, hey, wow, look, baby just born, really exciting. And it’s totally natural. People have been telling all of their friends and family members excitedly about their newborns for a long, long time. But what’s different now is that it is not just your friends are telling about it. You’re also sharing that data with some other third parties that might be able to use it.

Andy: And you point out here that even something as simple as that can be problematic because a lot of websites use private information like your birthday or your city of birth, where were you born and things like that to verify your identity. And so the more that information that starts just kind of leaking out and getting posted, the harder it is for you to maintain your own privacy later on. Or I guess, these things that might seem benign or might seem like just a fun little thing to post, I guess we don’t often think about the consequences. And as reading through this book, it really got me thinking about how a lot of those things that seem on the surface like it’s not a big deal, that there’s more beneath the surface.

Leah: I agree with that Andy and there can be more beneath the surface in a number of ways. First and foremost, when we as parents or teachers or grandparents or other adults, are sharing this kind of information about our kids, bottom line is that we are likely not asking them for permission. And-

Andy: Especially if it’s their ultrasound.

Leah: Right, and I was just about to say, you took the words right out of my mouth. We can’t ask them for permission in many contexts. And even if we could, and I certainly encourage parents in age appropriate, developmentally responsible ways to have that conversation with their kids, they really may not understand in any meaningful way what they’re agreeing to. So first and foremost, we are sharing information that is not completely ours. And look, I’m a mom of two kids. They’re five and nine. I certainly think that my husband and I, as their parents, have the responsibility and the authority to be making the major life decisions that shape their upbringing. No question. But I also think that when it comes to sharing information about them, that we’re not required to share, it’s not as if the school is saying we won’t enroll your child, unless you go on Facebook and share a Halloween picture or say what their favorite candy is.

Leah: This isn’t like going to the doctor and giving the date of birth so you can get a medical record. If my husband and I make a choice to share that, that is information that is unlikely to ever really disappear from the internet, because nothing disappears from the internet. It’s information that may seem innocuous now, when we are thinking about our kids as they are in a static moment in time, but first we may not actually have a comprehensive sense of just how innocuous it is.

Leah: And if you think about communities where a parent might be, again, in the most well-meaning way, let’s say sharing a Halloween costume picture with their social network on social media. Well, if their child is being bullied or is feeling vulnerable and another parent’s child sees that picture or screenshots it or shares it, that’s something that can make the child feel embarrassed. And also, Andy, we very likely aren’t thinking about how that information might play out over time. So something that feels very innocuous or even cute to us when we are thinking about our kids as they are right now, may feel very different to them when they are old enough to go online for themselves and be like, hey mom, why did you tell the world I wet my bed until I was seven?

Andy: I really wish I could have kind of kept that secret.

Leah: Yeah, exactly. And again, I do think that almost all parents are coming from a place of good intention or at worse, maybe just being a little bit careless. No one is trying to make their kids feel embarrassed. No one’s trying to set their kids up for a tough time in adolescence. In fact, we’re really trying to do the opposite. We’re trying to say, look how proud we are or gosh, we’re having a tough time in our house right now. Let’s try to get help. And also, we may be trying to validate ourselves or seek reassurance for our own parenting choices, which is something that’s important.

Andy: Is this normal, are other people having the same problem too. Because like, and it feels good when other people say, oh yeah, same thing. My kid’s eight and still wetting the bed or whatever. There’s something to that, and then you kind of, ah, okay, good to know. Right. So there is value in that I think. And that is, I think also what’s hard about getting to the teenage years because in general parents seem not to want to share as much stuff as their kids get older, because then it becomes more obvious that like, okay, they’re developing like their own identity.

Andy: And maybe it’s not really my place to be sharing with my friends about, oh, hey, just had this crazy problem with my, I just really had a big fight with my daughter last night. And she just started her period and I don’t know how to talk about it. And maybe that’s not something to share, but especially when kids are younger, we don’t necessarily even think about that. I think because they’re not really a person yet even, they don’t really quite have that identity starting to form. And it’s easy to just say stuff, just put it out there.

Leah: Absolutely. And I think the other thing to keep in mind about sharing information that seems innocuous or even heartwarming, is that if it falls into the wrong hands and I’m not trying to be alarmist at all, this is by no means any way, shape or form the majority of interactions online. But if you think about it, if you’re sharing information like exactly where you and your family live, or even what your child’s favorite candy is or what they’re scared of, you are putting out information about their physical whereabouts. You’re putting out information about their likes, their dislikes and things that can be manipulated or even abused in the wrong hands. And so that’s a big concern. Another concern is that we don’t have good transparency when it comes to what tech companies are doing with the information we put into them.

Leah: We do not have, I know Apple recently is coming out with a nutrition style label, but we don’t have across the board easy to read consistent nutrition style labeling for the devices and the services that we’re using. So when we as parents click I accept or continue or whatever it is so that we can use an app or use a device, we really don’t know what kind of bargain we’re getting into. Even if we do try to read the fine print and I’m a law nerd, so I do read it. Good luck trying to understand as a consumer what it means to say we collect information from you, including the following types. It’s never, almost never-

Andy: Which may be used for any of the following purposes.

Leah: Exactly. You tend not to get a definitive list of information types or a definitive list of purposes.

Andy: Well, because as a company it’s like our needs are going to evolve over the coming year. So we want to write this thing as broad as possible so that we don’t even know what technology is going to, what we might be able to do with this data in five years. And so we want to write our user agreement in such a way that as our technological capabilities evolve over the coming years, we’ll be able to evolve with it. And we’ll still be able to use this data down the line.

Leah: Totally. And look, from a perspective that is innovation focused and vendor focused, that makes total sense. And if I were counsel for one of those companies, I would be telling them the same thing.

Andy: I would write it the same way. Yes. As broad as possible.

Leah: But, where I come at it as a parent and then as a researcher, is we ultimately, if we’re thinking about multi-stakeholder interests, right, so if you’re the head of the startup or your counsel to that tech company, of course your obligation at that point is how do you maximize flexibility in the data that you are acquiring? Because your needs may evolve, your opportunities may evolve.

Leah: But when we’re taking a multi-stakeholder perspective and thinking what is best for our kids and our families, and even more broadly for society, it is not to have a wild west approach to personal data. I’m going to come out and say, I don’t think that we, and we, of course it’s not going to be every single person, but maybe majority approach, we don’t want to live in a society where what opportunities you have, be it an educational opportunity, a career opportunity, a credit product opportunity, we don’t want to live in a society where things that you did or that happened to you from the time of even before you were born, can be aggregated, analyzed, acted upon by companies over which you have no insight and certainly no control.

Leah: When you think about the kind of autonomy and room for individual liberty and individual trajectory that characterizes the United States and many other countries, but I’m focusing on the US for the moment, those are the values that underlie our liberal democracy. So I do think that all of us, including ultimately the tech companies and the lawyers writing the agreements on behalf of the tech companies, should be really concerned about this from an ethical perspective.

Andy: I think it’s not a question of if, I think this is going to happen, this is already happening. This is what machine learning does really, really, really, really well. Collect a lot of data, get a huge data set and be able to predict outcomes in the future. And the bigger the data set gets, the better it gets at predicting outcomes. If we can collect a bunch of data, as you point out, maybe your kids using learning apps at school, maybe they’re playing games and there’s data about their reaction times and how good they are. Things just in games that they’re playing on their iPad, whatever. Well, all of this data is cheap. It’s not that hard for someone to gather all of it together and then to put that into a model and start predicting how well they’re going to do in college, whether they would be good at this kind of a career, whether they be good at that kind of a job.

Andy: And as soon as you get some kind of validity where you can actually demonstrate that above and beyond their SAT scores, above and beyond their high school grades, above and beyond their essay that they write to get into your college, this data can give us a better idea of who is going to succeed in your college. That’s worth so much to a college. They’re going to buy that data. It’s just going to happen. Employers, well, who should I hire? It costs a lot of money to train a new employee. If you’re hired, it takes a year and a half for an employee to like really get to the point where they’re productive. If I’m a company and I’m going to invest in hiring a new employee, it might be worth spending $10,000 to hire a data company that’s been collecting data on everybody for their entire life that can tell me out of these 10 applicants that I have, which one has the best potential.

Andy: That just makes economic sense and it’s going to happen. And the data that seems innocuous, that your kids are putting out there, that you’re putting out there with just little posts that seem like not a big deal, just little things that you do, pictures from your family vacation, all of that stuff, we need to think a lot deeper about before we just put it out there I think. Because we have no idea what the capabilities are going to be in 20 years, when your kids start becoming adults and are out in the world, and we have no idea how this data might be used against them or to help them or anything. And it’s better to be cautious and to think about it and to be aware, I think, not that we have to go disconnect from the internet and live in a cave in the backwoods somewhere, but just that I think we need to be a lot more conscious.

Leah: I am a hundred percent with you. And what you said, Andy, made me think of two things. The first is on your excellent point that we don’t know what is going to happen with this five, 10, 15 years. So no sooner did Sharenthood come out last fall from MIT Press, then I had to start keeping a list and you can see it here, I’ll show you on the screen. This is the copy that was used for talks. And I started my handwritten notes. So I started keeping a list in the inside front cover of all the things that happened after the book went to press that I wished I had been able to include. So they’ll be in a sequel, but one of the big ones was the New York Times ran, I think it was actually a cover story in the hard copy edition, but a prominent story last fall.

Leah: And the headline was how photos of your kids are powering surveillance technology. And it was a wonderful piece of investigative journalism that looked at the ways in which photos that parents had posted of children, as well as other photos on social media, had been used to train surveillance technology. And the journalist said, who could have possibly predicted that a snapshot of a toddler in 2005 would contribute a decade and a half later to the development of bleeding edge surveillance technology. And the answer is that all of us paying attention right now in 2020, we don’t have a crystal ball, we cannot predict exactly what the uses will be, but we should be on notice to sound lawyerly-

Andy: It will be used for something.

Leah: Exactly Andy. And then the other thing your point made me think of is there’s an awesome book by Cathy O’Neil, Weapons of Math Destruction. And it’s just a wonderful book. And one of the things that Cathy talks about in here is all the ways in which the hiring industry, so the kinds of tools that you were talking about, right, to try to help employers predict who is going to be a good fit, in whom should I invest resources and training. And she found in her book that in 2016, which is now several years ago, it was already a $500 million industry. The products and services to help assess fit. And that 60 to 70% of adult applicants for jobs in the US were taking some sort of employment fit assessment. And these are largely online at this point. And so to then say, okay, when our kids cohort is coming into the jobs, they are going to have so much more of a data trail that can just be folded in. So it’s the wave of the future, right?

Andy: Add it to the picture. It’s another thing to consider when you’re hiring people. Not that it’s going to be the only thing necessarily, but the more accurate it gets, honestly, I mean, it might get to the point where that’s all you need to know, because it it’s more accurate than any thing that you could possibly get from doing an interview with somebody. It might get to the point where it’s like, you don’t even need to have an interview with somebody because people can lie during interviews. People can act really good at stuff when they’re not really, but the data doesn’t lie. And we can look back to all these apps you used to use when you were a kid and we can see how you really spent your time in high school, we can see, who knows, right? We can see what your actual propensities are for all kinds of different things. And we can just say, hey, who’s actually, this person I think makes a lot more sense than this person.

Leah: And we have to be really vigilant because you’re right that you can get certain objective realities from data that you can’t get from more subjective interactions like interviews. But we also have to be very on guard that the ways in which the products are set up into which the data’s being entered and the ways in which data is being extracted and then analyzed and shared are free from built in bias, because very often they’re not. And so there’s the more sort of glass is half full type of view of the use of data in hiring or other contexts to say, gosh, it can create a more complete, more well-rounded, more objective picture. So let’s say that I don’t interview well, but it turns out you look at the data and I am just a whiz when it comes to spreadsheets. I’m not actually, but I have colleagues who are, so it all works out. But the data can tell you that. So then I get the opportunity that I would not have otherwise gotten.

Andy: Right, it’s a two-sided coin because also it’s like, if you go into, if you hear this interview and you go into like, wow, alert mode, I need to stop my kid from using all apps and from doing the learning things at school and from everything, because that data can be used against them. Well, that’s not necessarily the point either. Because if I’m an employer in 20 years from now looking who to hire, and your kid has no data trail whatsoever, then that doesn’t really look too good to me either. I’m going to go with the one who I for sure can look at and say, yeah, the data shows this person’s going to be a good fit with 99% accuracy, you’re hired.

Andy: So yeah, it’s a very, very deep issue. There’s not a simple solution, I think, which makes it really, you know, there’s a lot of sides to consider. But I think we need to be considering them is the point and the point that you make, we need to be including our kids in that conversation and just talking to them about all of this too.

Leah: Absolutely. And it’s interesting, more and more schools are teaching some form of digital literacy or digital citizenship. So how you discern fact from misinformation or disinformation and how you engage online. And the digital world is one where many parents, certainly Gen X and above, I’m the tail end of Gen X. So I’ll out myself and say, it’s certainly true for me. I did not have email until I went to college. I did not have a cell phone until I graduated from college. I had a very funny, somewhat disheartening exchange with one of my law students a few years ago, she saw a whiteboard up on my wall and I made some comment about how, yeah, you know, now I use those for to do lists or planning, but in college, of course it was where we all left each other notes.

Leah: And she said, oh, you used a whiteboard for something that wasn’t decoration? And I was like, yeah. How are we supposed to find each other? You would walk by someone’s room and if they weren’t there, you’d leave a note that’s like, in the dining hall, right? You weren’t texting. We weren’t even, particularly IM’ing, because as I said, I’m the tail end of Gen X. And so I do look back on that. I’m like, how did we even know where we were?

Leah: But maybe we didn’t, I don’t know. Maybe there’s still someone wandering around the dining hall being like, where is everyone? But, we as parents don’t have as much digital sophistication sometimes even as our children do. And we certainly haven’t had the formal education in it. And so it’s a weird area where I’m not saying that we should give our kids veto power over the decisions we as adults make about digital life. Because if I did that, my nine-year-old would get to play Fortnite and not go to school, not things that are going to happen right now. But you know, Andy, we do have to be listening to and including our kids and also modeling for them that even in those situations where there’s no right or wrong answer, we are having mindful values-based respectful discussions and internal deliberations about it.

Andy: Yeah. We’re being very mindful at thinking about it before we just click accept, I do, download now.

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About Leah Plunkett

Leah Plunkett became a lawyer so she could work with kids, parents, and communities on law and the ordinary—the things in daily life at the heart of who we each are and aspire to be.

Leah is an associate professor at University of New Hampshire and the Berkman Klein Center for Internet & Society at Harvard University. Her first book, Sharenthood, stems from her work in the legality of the digital and online sphere. Leah also serves as the associate dean at UNH Franklin Pierce School of Law, directs the Academic Success program for the law school, and serves on the board of ACLU of New Hampshire.

Plunkett’s work and writing has been featured in numerous national and international publications, both in print and radio. The New Yorker, The Wall Street Journal, Business Insider, BBC Radio, ABC Radio, and CNN are just a few of the notable media to feature her expertise. 

Leah lives with her husband, kids, and dog in Concord, New Hampshire where she starts her mornings with Earl Grey tea. In her limited spare time, you might find her in the garden coaxing her kale to grow.

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