How to help your kids be responsible digital citizens, from a tech exec (and mom)

Mar 25, 2020 /

When you give a child their first smartphone, don’t send them into the digital world unprepared. Here’s a look at the three-page agreement that technology executive Jennifer Zhu Scott asked her kids to sign when they got their phones, complete with some advice that adults should consider following, too.

It’s become a modern rite of passage for many people. When children reach a certain age (depending on their family and culture), their parents decide that they’re ready to have their own smartphone. But along with the phone comes worry on the part of most parents. Will their kids get too attached to their devices? Will they use them responsibly? Or foolishly?

A few years ago, Jennifer Zhu Scott, a technology investor based in Hong Kong, found herself in this situation when she and her husband decided to give her two daughters — one, nearly 11 and the other, 10 — their first smartphones. But unlike many parents, she knew all too well about the dangers that her kids would be facing. Her area of expertise is how large companies use people’s personal data, and she’s working on a platform that gives users more control.

To ensure that her daughters would steer clear of potential dangers, she adopted a strategy from her own industry: she had them sign a user agreement. (It can be viewed here.) Inspired by similar agreements that Zhu Scott found online and her own knowledge about privacy, this three-page document makes it clear that a smartphone isn’t just a gadget or a toy. “A cell phone is more than a piece of technology. If used wrongly, it can be a weapon that puts your safety or future reputation at risk,” it states. “You’ve always been a great kid, and we want to make sure that you continue making smart choices.”

In a 15-point agreement — Zhu Scott made her kids initial after each point to acknowledge that they read and understood it — they had to agree to share their passwords with her, ask for permission before signing up for social media accounts, be open about harassment or strange phone calls or messages, and answer any questions about how they were using their phones. Part of the agreement is a crash course in internet privacy. It tells her daughters what we adults so often forget — that everything we put online is likely to be read, used and sold in ways that we can’t begin to imagine. With that in mind, here’s what she thinks every kid should know before using a smartphone for the first time

Your data is a valuable asset — so don’t give it away lightly. Point #13 in the agreement reads: “I understand my personal data will be the most valuable assets when I grow up. I understand many free apps are free because they want to take and sell my personal data. I promise to check in with my parents before I download and sign into any apps.” Zhu Scott explains, “When you give away your data, think about what you’re getting back, not only just the benefits but also the potential damage.” Free apps like Facebook, Gmail and Google come with their own price. The companies scan your posts, emails and searches in order to feed tailored advertising, content and search results back to you.

This might seem like a reasonable price to pay for a free service, but Zhu Scott warns that it’s not. For starters, Facebook and Gmail make billions of dollars a year from their users’ personal data. She also points out how Facebook data was used to manipulate voters via misleading targeted ads in the 2016 United States presidential elections and 2016 Brexit vote. So what you see on social media platforms is not unbiased and could even be decided by unknown third parties. This content goes on to affect our decisions and our lives, so when kids (and the rest of us) provide their data, they run the risk of allowing themselves to be controlled by the tech giants. “For our children when they grow up, if they want to be an independent person, giving away their data today will impact how much they will be living the illusion of free will,” Zhu Scott says.

Flooding the internet with selfies is not a wise choice. That’s because, as point #12 in the agreement reminds her kids, “everything I upload on the internet will be permanently online and in 99 percent of cases I will lose my ownership of such content.” With software available today, it’s very easy for other people to manipulate images and create false video footage, just from a photo, and this technology is only going to become more powerful in the future. “We have no idea what’s going to happen in 10 years’ time when our children grow up and what people can do with that one picture you posted online,” Zhu Scott says. For that reason, she advocates being extremely conservative with what you post.

Avoid sending a text or photo that you wouldn’t want forwarded to everyone in your school. “If it’s digital, the chances are it’s permanent,” says Zhu Scott. Anyone who receives a text message can share it with others by taking a screen-shot or forwarding it, and even if you’re sending only to people you trust, their phones and emails can always be hacked. And as uncomfortable as it may be, she advocates for talking frankly with your kids about never sending sexting and naked photos before they encounter the issue firsthand. “You kind of have to prepare them,” she says. So point #5 reads: “I will not send or receive naked photos or any other inappropriate content. Ever. I understand that there could be serious legal consequences that could put mine and my family’s future at risk.”

Enlist grandparents to keep kids’ phone behavior in check. Point #6 reads: “I will never search for anything that I would be embarrassed by if seen by Grandma.” This was what Zhu Scott came up with after she was trying to think of an effective way to prevent her kids from following their natural curiosity too far on Google and stumbling on inappropriate or dangerous content. Because she couldn’t actually look over her daughters’ shoulders all the time, she tried to think of a virtual way to instill that. Her tactic seems to have worked. She reports, “My daughter, especially my younger daughter, said, “Oh my god, this is always on my mind.’”

Practice good habits and etiquette with your phone, just as you practice them in other parts of your life. Zhu Scott has her daughters agree not to text and walk, not to use their phones when they’re spending time with friends and family, and not to feel obligated to respond to messages right away — “to have a life” is how the agreement puts it. And to prevent the endless scrolling syndrome that most of us have experienced, especially during those vulnerable late night and early morning hours, she asks her daughters to turn in their phones to her at 8PM every evening. If not, “before you know, you just get sucked in for hours before you go to sleep,” says Zhu Scott. Leaving your phone to charge in another room, she adds, “is a way to protect your family life and your mental health.” And just as it’s far too tempting to open an app when we can’t sleep, a phone makes it too easy to respond rashly over text — and regret it the next day (or minute). For that reason, she tells her kids to “sleep on it” before responding to a volatile text. Better yet, if you have to deal with a sticky situation, do it in person: “Never say anything via text that you wouldn’t say face to face,” writes Zhu Scott in the agreement.

Think before you post — how will this look to you in ten years? Zhu Scott’s kids agree to point #7 which reads, “I understand that my behaviour on my phone can impact my future reputation — even in ways that I am not able to predict or see.” She hammered this point home by showing her kids photos of themselves in diapers from a decade ago. “They were like, ‘Oh gross, that’s really embarrassing,’” she said. “And I said, ‘Well, you know, when you were that age, you didn’t feel that it was embarrassing.’” The same goes for posts on social media: what might seem funny today could be mortifying in 10 or 20 years’ time.

Make sure your integrity extends to your web presence. “When you’re a good person, you don’t bring a completely different persona online,” Zhu Scott points out. Because social media is such a powerful way to distribute information, she urges her kids — and people in general — to think carefully about what they put out there. She asks: “Do you help to spread positive messages, constructive messages and well-balanced messages?”

With kids and technology, boundaries are important but so is trust. For example, Zhu Scott — because of point #2 in the agreement — has all her kids’ passwords. However, she’s rarely used them.

It’s not too late for any of us to become responsible digital citizens. “My generation went into social media without knowing what’s what, and we just went in,” says Zhu Scott. But there are still ways adults can make up for lost time. “If I’m honest, I think the best advice I can give to people is to delete Facebook,” she says, because of how it uses data. Or, she suggests, if you own a small business, you might just keep a Facebook page as a way to reach out to customers. “Everybody should approach Facebook as if it’s Linked In,” she says. “They use you in a very transactional way, and you should use them in a transactional way as well.” But she believes that you shouldn’t use a Facebook profile to store personal photos and that you should be cautious about what you post there and on Instagram (which is owned by Facebook). “Even if it’s set as ‘private,’ just assume whatever you post is permanently public anyway,” she warns.

And for digital citizens who are also parents, she has this advice: Please don’t post photos of your kids online. “My heart aches when I see people putting their baby’s pictures on Twitter,” Zhu Scott says. While your child may someday decide to become a social media influencer, don’t make that decision for them in advance — they also may want to be completely anonymous on the internet. “I just don’t think parents should give that away before their kids can make a decision,” she says.

So far, Zhu Scott thinks her user agreement with her kids has worked well. “I’m quite happy with them; both of my kids have quite a strong sense of their privacy and their data,” she says. One of her daughters did violate the agreement by signing up for a TikTok account, a form of social media that she didn’t foresee when she wrote it. At first Zhu Scott was scared. But when her daughter showed her her profile, she was relieved: it was private. Her younger daughter has a private Instagram (pro-tip: Zhu-Scott and her friends follow each others’ kids) but never posts photos of herself there. “Why would I want to?” her daughter told her. “It’s private.”

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