Trust & Tech: Kids With Smartphones

(This is the first part of a series about trust and technology.)

Technology plays a big part in modern Western society. Despite 20% of American households not having access to the Internet at home or in their community, many companies have simply gotten rid of paper job applications: you apply online or not at all. And as this need increases, so too does the use of devices by minors.

In 2013, a Pew Research poll found that 37% of teens in the United States have a smartphone. Of those 12–17-year-olds, half of them used the Internet primarily using a smartphone. That means 18.5% of U.S. teens access the Internet primarily using their smartphone.

These devices hold an incredible amount of information, and that’s another reason that trustworthy computing is so important. Trustworthy computing means different things to different people, but in this case I mean the trust between a user and the systems they use. It covers security, privacy, reliability, and consent.

Legally speaking, minors cannot be bound to contracts, including Terms of Service. When you first start using software, the license agreement and terms of service that users are prompted with cannot be applied to them. However, the device doesn’t know that they aren’t adults, and those terms will be skipped by teenagers (not that adults are better!) and they will agree to them without reading them.

It’s a bad habit to get into, especially when most people don’t read the contracts they sign for phone service, social media, or employment. Inside that legalese is more than just standard limitation of liability or a class-action suit waiver. There are privacy terms that most adults wouldn’t be comfortable agreeing to, much less agreeing on behalf of their children.

Let’s consider for a moment everything you can use a smartphone for. There is a camera and microphone, a calendar, an address book, a Web browser, thousands of apps from Facebook and YouTube to Instagram and Snapchat, a GPS receiver which has assistance from cellular networks and Wi-Fi, notes, email—there is a lot of information about ourselves that we put on our phones. And you may not know it or consent to it, but Google, Apple, and Microsoft may be storing or sharing that information.

Now, I’m not saying that you should freak out. These are useful services, mostly trustworthy, that are not inherently bad. The problem is that most people don’t fully understand what they are consenting to, or if they even consented at all. This is a bigger problem when it comes to the data of minors. Without a full sense of what happens to the data they put in their phone that they may believe is private, information could be given to people who should not have it.

If an identity thief gets ahold of private information, parents/guardians could have a huge mess to clean up. If an abuser gets ahold of it, it could put kids in danger. And just imagine if an angsty teen’s journals get intercepted by the NSA: they could end up in trouble for making “terroristic threats”.

And as devices start to collect and store more information about you, like fingerprints for unlocking a device, your location history, and private health data which should be protected under HIPAA but currently is not, we really need to be taking a proactive stance on both our own privacy and security and that of teenagers and children.

So talk to your yutes. Make sure they’re educated about how significant the information is. Don’t discourage them from being creative and using their devices; they are genuinely useful and can be perfectly safe. Instead, encourage them to understand what happens to their information, the importance of privacy, and to read agreements. There are many resources to help you and yours understand the law, privacy, industry terms, and to advocate for you.