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  • September 17, 2010, 7:49 PM ET

How to Protect Your Child’s Privacy Online

Websites popular among children and teens place more tracking technologies on users’ computers than do the top websites aimed at adults, a Wall Street Journal investigation has found. But parents can take steps to limit their children’s exposure.

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Web-browsing activity is tracked by “cookies,” “beacons” and “Flash cookies,” small computer files or software programs installed on a computer when a user visits some Web pages. Some are useful. But others are used by companies to track users from site to site and build profiles of their online activities.

All Internet users, whether adults or children, can limit tracking by adjusting settings on Web browsers and Adobe Systems Inc.’s popular Flash program. These settings can delete cookies and limit what types of cookies may be placed on the computer. For additional protection, parents also can install small programs, called “add-ons,” to a child’s browser. And parents can prevent children from seeing behaviorally targeted ads through tools provided by the ad networks. (For more details on these measures, see the Journal’s earlier article.)

But studies and interviews suggest additional considerations for protecting children, particularly young children, online. Elementary-school-age children may not understand basics of Internet safety, according to a 2005 study in the Journal of Applied Developmental Psychology. For example, such young children may not understand that submitting their name and email address for a contest can hand personal information to people who may sell it.

Such concerns are less pressing with teenagers, who tend to know as much, or more, about the Web as their parents. But a study released earlier this year by researchers at the University of California Berkeley and the University of Pennsylvania found that older eenagers are more likely than adults to believe their privacy is being protected online when it isn’t. Harvard Law School professor John Palfrey, who studies children’s attitudes toward privacy, said focus groups suggest that as teens learn more about behavioral targeting, they become more concerned about the practice and less likely to share information broadly.

Here are some ways that parents can help shield their children from prying eyes:

The Privacy Conversation: Parents who are concerned about behavioral tracking should first talk with their children about privacy online, says Tim Lordan, executive director of GetNetWise, a non-profit group aimed at improving online safety. Such a discussion can address many aspects of privacy on the Web — from tracking to the use of social-networking sites and the disclosure of personal information.

Parents should remind children — younger kids in particular — not to give out their name or other personal information online, Mr. Lordan said. They also should alert them to common Web tricks, such flashing pop-up ads that may install spyware on the computer. In a recent three-month period, more than 100 ad networks and exchanges delivered ads that could install malicious software on a user’s computer, according to analysis by the Online Trust Association, a non-profit business-backed group.

Parents should ask elementary-school-age children to inform them when a site asks for personal information, Mr. Lordan said. The Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act, known as Coppa, prohibits website operators from knowingly collecting personally identifiable information from children under 13 without parental consent. Some sites ask a child to enter a parent’s email address to get approval. When parents receive a Coppa notice, they should visit the site and examine its privacy policy before allowing their child to register.

Monitoring Software: Some parents use software to monitor children’s online activity, such as Net Nanny from ContentWatch Inc. and Norton Online Family from Symantec Corp. Such programs aim to prevent kids from accessing objectionable content, such as pornography, gambling or violence. They also allow parents to see and restrict social-networking activity, and some offer an option to block advertising. However, Net Nanny and Norton Online Family don’t block online tracking technologies such as cookies.

Parents can use monitoring software to see when their children are visiting new sites and then inspect those sites and their privacy policies. Child-privacy experts say it’s important to be candid with children about such monitoring and the reasons for it, especially because studies have shown that children see parental monitoring as an invasion of their privacy.

Blocking Ads: To prevent kids from clicking on ads, parents can consider programs that block most Web ads, and the trackers that often accompany them. Blocking ads is a controversial step because many websites rely on advertising to fund their free content. One widely used program, Adblock Plus, is free, though it works primarily with Mozilla’s Firefox browser. (http://adblockplus.org/en/) After installing the program, you select filters for the ads and trackers you want to block. Two common filters, EasyList and EasyPrivacy, block most ads and trackers.

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Written by ibu didin

October 18th, 2010 at 6:28 pm