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Your child’s personal information – and how to protect it online (secondary)

teenager on their phone

We’ve also published a version of this article for primary-aged children. Click here to view it.

Sharing personal information is a fact of life on the internet, and that’s just as true for young people as it is for adults. But sometimes we might share more online than we would offline without thinking about who might see it or use it. 

Children inhabit a vast digital world packed with opportunities. They can play games with friends, watch videos, interact on social media, explore new hobbies and access a wealth of learning resources and information.

Many of these apps, games and sites are even free to use – in monetary terms at least. But they’re not free in all senses, because your child may instead have to give away their personal information in exchange for using them. 

Secondary schools will be teaching your child about personal information as part of the new RSHE curriculum (see box at bottom of page). This article will help you support their learning – and help reduce the risks at home too.

What is personal information? 

Personal information is any information that can be used to identify your child.

It includes obvious things such as their name and email address, date of birth and where they live. But it can also include less obvious things – for instance who their family and friends are, where they go to school, or a photograph or video showing what they look like. Therefore, if they share a picture of themselves on social media, this counts as personal information. It can even include details of their daily routine. And of course online it also includes their username and password.

Personal information also includes bank or payment details. This may become particularly relevant as your child gets older, as they may begin to use their own account for online payments.

How and where might your child share personal information?

Personal information is used almost everywhere on the internet.

For a start, any website, app, game or service that requires a login will ask for personal information. This will usually be a username and password but it will often also include your child’s real name and email address and age. 

Many sites and apps will also let your child create a profile. Here, they may have the chance to upload a photo, add their date of birth and maybe list their hobbies and interests. For example, Facebook encourages users to input all kinds of personal information, such as place of education, places you’ve lived, contact information and relationship status. Of course it is not compulsory to fill in all these details, but many young people will love the idea of personalising their account and telling other users about themselves, and so will jump straight into it.

It’s become increasingly common for apps to allow users to share their location. Some allow you to tag photos with the exact place they were taken, others track users’ locations and update them automatically. 

Sometimes your child might share personal information by accident. This is particularly common on social media apps, where sharing is the whole point. 

If your child has a YouTube channel, or enjoys vlogging and livestreaming, it is easy to inadvertently share personal information. Filming inside or outside your home, or in school uniform, gives this information away to their viewers.

Your child might also be tricked into sharing information – for instance by an unsafe website, a scam email or a pop-up box. Young people love competitions and may share their email address if they think they’ll get something in return. 

What are the risks around personal information?

Most personal information that your child shares online will be used for legitimate purposes – whether allowing them to log in, helping them to connect with friends or letting them create a profile. 

Unfortunately, that doesn’t mean it’s entirely safe. Sites can be hacked, and if hackers get access to that personal information they could use it for cyber crime. The good news is that this doesn’t happen often – but it’s always better to be safe than sorry.

Some sites may also use your personal information to try to sell you something that you don’t want. The GDPR laws introduced in 2018 help to stop this kind of thing from happening, but if your child has ticked a privacy policy box somewhere without really understanding what they were agreeing to, it’s possible they could be emailed with tempting offers – or even just spam.

If other internet users have access to your child’s personal data they could use it too. This could lead to the child being trolled or bullied online, or even groomed – though this is unlikely. 

Moreover, once your child shares personal information publicly (through a social media post), or privately (through a text message), someone else may have a copy that they could share with others or repost online at any time in the future. 

Secondary school age is often a time where young people experiment with boundaries and with what they post online. This could even include naked or semi-naked images. It is important that they understand that anything they share forms part of their digital footprint, and once shared you can never be sure who has seen it, saved it or shared it.

What can parents do to protect their child’s personal information?

Secondary-school aged children may well set up online accounts without your input, so it is important to speak to them about how they look after their personal information – and what they choose to share. 

Remind them that it’s really important to set strong passwords, as they will help to protect personal information from people who might try to access it. A good tip is to use three random words together, and to replace a few letters with numbers. For instance, ‘TreeElephantFootball’ might become ‘Tr33ElephantF00tball’. 

They should also use different passwords for different sites and do this by finding a way to remember passwords that works for them. That way, if one account does get hacked, your child’s other accounts should be safe. Saving passwords in your browser (for example on Google or Bing) is a great way to do this. Some people think saving your passwords in your browser isn’t a very secure thing to do, but the big technology companies have actually invested a lot of time and money in the security of their browsers. 

Talk to your child about personal information. Discuss what it is and when it is safe to share. As they get older, children may increasingly be talking to people that they don’t know offline – whether on social media, games or other apps and platforms. Make sure they know that some information should not be shared with others online, and if they share something they shouldn’t – or feel uncomfortable about something they have shared or are being asked to share – they should tell you or another adult they trust.

Explain that some sites, emails and pop ups may try to trick them into clicking on links or sharing information. For example, they may offer free coins, avatars or upgrades. Before they click on any links, they should stop and think critically about what they’re doing. And if in doubt, they should ask for help from a trusted adult. 

And remind them that personal information isn’t just about what’s written down. A photo can contain lots of information – for instance an image of them wearing their uniform could identify which school they attend. 

Finally, the settings in many apps can restrict what data is shared. Look through the options with your child and agree which things you – and they – are happy for others to know about them. The National Cyber Security Centre has further advice about how to do this. You can also read a guide to privacy settings on ThinkUKnow and a guide to privacy settings on the major social media platforms on Parent Zone.


The new RSE/RSHE curriculum

The new RSE (for primary) and RSHE (secondary) curriculum is compulsory from September 2020. However due to the impact of COVID-19, schools have been given additional time to implement it if they need it. They must begin teaching by April 2021. Parent Info will be running a series of articles over the next year exploring the ‘Online Relationships’ aspect of the new primary curriculum and the ‘Online and media’ aspect of the secondary curriculum. This article will help parents of secondary-aged children understand how they can support the learning from the statutory curriculum, specifically that children ‘Know about online risks, including that any material someone provides to another has the potential to be shared online and the difficulty of removing potentially compromising material placed online’ and that they ‘Know not to provide material to others that they would not want shared further and not to share personal material which is sent to them.’

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