Not many of us disassemble and reassemble calculators for fun as kids. But then again, not many of us grow up to be leading experts in digital privacy. Cat is the multi-talented brains behind Binary Tattoo, an organization that helps educate and empower people to control and protect their online identity. She is certified in Canadian Privacy Law from the International Association of Privacy Professionals—and she’s also a busy mom, giving her a special insight into the importance of privacy for kids and families. We sat down with Cat to learn what parents need to know to keep their children safe online.
Tell us how Binary Tattoo started?
I am a software engineer by trade and I’ve spent over a decade designing mobile devices. As a mom, I had this moment where I said, “I’m raising my kids in this digital generation, I understand what they’re doing.” But then I started reading terms and conditions and looking at backend software for services I was using—and I realized I didn’t actually know anything about these systems.
I felt there was a gap in knowledge. So, I started Binary Tattoo in 2013 to help educate parents and students about how their data is used and abused online—and how to maintain their privacy and stay safe.
But in the past few years, I’ve merged into data privacy compliance. The bulk of what I do now is guiding companies in order to protect the privacy of their clients, users and patients, but there is always a children’s element in everything I do. Many of these policies now have new protective regulations in there for kids, which has become a big deal with data privacy.
How has the industry changed over the years?
When I first started, you could search people really easily. I would meet with parents and search their kids online so we could clean up their public profiles. I used to be able to go on Facebook and find tons of easily accessible information about people. Today, it’s much more difficult to find—which is great from a technological perspective. And from a human perspective, there is certainly more awareness.
People are figuring out that a lot of these social networks are selling your data. If you’re not paying for the product, you are the product. I would rather pay for privacy, and I would rather pay for a private chat app than have someone read all my chats.
We are moving in that direction where people appreciate that you do need to pay for a service if you want it to protect you because otherwise, it has to take something from you.
What’s the biggest privacy concern for parents and their children?
You often hear people say, “I have nothing to hide,” but your identity is an asset to you and even simple things like my children’s email addresses do not use their real names. People I know have had their identities stolen because their email address is “firstname.lastname.” You’re now giving away your name to anyone who wants to contact you.
Or in the cases of some of my daughter’s friends, they meet someone at camp and those kids can now reach out to them using just their name as a guess—and it works. So kids should be ensuring that their usernames right down to email addresses are not giving away personal information.
Beyond privacy concerns, are there other risks when kids use these platforms?
I think the stats right now is something like 85% of kids under 12 will stumble on porn—and they’re not looking for porn.
One of my kids wanted to watch the trailer for Endgame on YouTube. When they opened it, they got an ad for Pet Sematary before the trailer started, which was really frightening. This is a great example where a child was allowed to watch something, but was exposed to something else that could be frightening—without seeking it out. Kids in grades five, six and seven, just scroll Instagram to look at things—and Instagram and TikTok are full of inappropriate content. Parents often say, “I don’t get this TikTok thing, my kid just plays on it.” I tell them they need to know what their kid is looking at.
Parents don’t have to spy on their kids. Every parent is different, and every child is different; some kids need to be watched and some kids don’t—but parents should have an idea what their kids are looking at.
With that in mind, what can parents do to keep their kids safe?
Your kids have to be comfortable coming to you. They will find this stuff by accident, and if they think telling you they saw something by accident is going to result in, “No more YouTube for you,” they’re not going to tell you. I have contracts with my kids that say, “I promise not to take your device away if you are the victim.”
If you’re being bullied, if you stumbled across something—even if you’re on a site where you’re not supposed to be, you’re already being penalized by whatever it is you saw. So, I’m not taking your device away. That way, my kids know they can come to me and they’re not going to be penalized twice.
Any strategies for how parents can approach tricky conversations about tech?
I go into grade five and six classrooms with kids who are 11 and 12 and I ask, “How many people here have TikTok, Snapchat, Instagram?” The majority put up their hand. If you’re okay with your kid being on these systems and you know they are mature enough to handle it, that’s your decision as a parent. The one caveat is they have to lie about their age to get on there. I don’t reprimand kids for that, but I help them understand that their data is taken from them and their pictures can be used for advertising. So, if you’ve lied about your age and made yourself 20, then someone is going to take your stuff. Kids hate the idea of other people taking their stuff.
The other thing I share with parents is the analogy of going to the park. When your kids are little, you push them in the swing. When they get bigger, you back off and watch them from the side.
And then one day your kid says, “Can I go to the park by myself” and you say, “Do you know what to do if you’re approached by a stranger or if you get hurt?” And if they do, then they’re off to the park without you. It’s the same thing with the internet.
If your child is online and someone they don’t know approaches them and they don’t know how to handle that, they should not be online unmonitored. When they see something that’s going to frighten them and they don’t know what to do with that, then they shouldn’t be on the internet unmonitored. If you’re giving your kid free rein on the internet, you are sending them to the park alone.
Are there positive ways you see kids using tech? What makes you feel optimistic about kids and technology?
My family doesn’t live in the same city, so the fact that my children are able to communicate with relatives means they can maintain relationships in ways they couldn’t before. And, kids are able to see the good and the bad in the world—and have a much better understanding of other cultures, other experiences. If someone says they’re a refugee from Syria, kids can grasp that because they can pull news from that side of the world and understand why that’s happening.
There are also a lot of kids who may have difficulty in social situations. Tech has been a great way for them to communicate, because they don’t always do it well in person and they can find community online.
Even kids who are just super shy are able to go online and communicate in a way that they may not be able to in real life. The flip side is that the internet is quick and permanent, and it’s easy for someone to post something without reasoning whether they should or shouldn’t be posting it.
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