What I Tell My Kids About the Internet

Hi kid! You don't know me, but I'm one of those "Internet expert" kind of guys they interview when something bad happens. I won't bore you with the details, but let's just say that I make big computer systems for a living and I know how they work.

I'm not your mom or dad, or a teacher, or your church leader, or your coach, or a cop. I don't know you, either, and honestly, I don't care about you personally so much that I'd want to scare you or exaggerate things or otherwise lie to you.

I love the Internet, and I'm pretty proud of this amazing place that my friends and I have built. There's a lot of great stuff on it, and I truly think it's one of the best things that people from all over the world have ever come together to create. I think we did a pretty good job, for the most part.

The thing is, it's also easy for bad things to happen on the Internet. I'm not talking about stuff like child predators or terrorists or hackers trying to steal your iTunes credits. Yeah, those things exist. But yes, the news exaggerates them a lot to scare you and to make you want to watch more of the news (see how that works?). I don't want to do that. The truth is, you're way more likely to have trouble from the wrong people seeing things you've written or pictures you've sent than you are from any Stranger Danger.

Social networks are awesome. I use the same ones you do - and some that you don't even know about yet - to talk to my friends the same way you talk to yours. I think they're great. However. Every single one of them tells the same lie: that you can click a "keep all my stuff private!" checkbox and all your stuff will stay private. If you only hear one thing I've said today, let it be this:

They. Are. Lying.

Oh, they don't mean to. The people who made Facebook and Twitter and WhatsApp are smart people who try awfully hard to do a good job. However, making giant computer systems like that is super difficult and it only takes one itty bitty mistake in a giant tangle of a million moving pieces for it all to break. When you see a setting like "only share this with my friends", what it really means is "should we try to keep this private and hope that we did everything 100% correct and didn't screw something up somewhere?"

But none of that really matters anyway, not when your "friend" can take a screenshot of your messages on their phone. Say you just told your BFF about your crush. You checked the little "don't share this!" box and the computer guys did their job and the privacy stuff works just like it's supposed to. And because they think it's funny, your BFF clicks the buttons to take a screenshot so they can tease you about it later. Guess what: now there's another copy of your message, but this one doesn't have that little "don't share this!" box next to it.

The rule in computing is "if you can read it, you can copy it". There are some smart people who waste their time trying to break that rule so that you can't make copies of movies or music or video games, but, well... did you pay for every one of those songs on your iPhone? Yeah, thought so. That's what I mean, though. If it's easy to copy songs and movies and video games, how hard is it to copy a screenshot of your text message conversation or - ahem - one of "those" pictures?

So after all that, here's what I tell my own kids:

  • If it's on the Internet, everyone can see it. No exceptions. Everyone. I'm saying this as one of the guys who helped make the Internet. Trust me on this one.
  • Do not put stuff on the Internet if you don't want everyone to see it.
  • Before you put stuff on the Internet, imagine who the worst possible person to see it in the entire world would be. What if your teacher read it? What if your mom or dad saw the picture? If the answer is "oh, wow, that would really suck", then don't put it on the Internet.
  • If it's on a computer or cell phone or iPad, it's on the Internet. You wouldn't believe how many ways there are for a note or photo to get automatically backed up or copied around to some computer somewhere that you don't have any control over.
  • This one is mainly (but not only) for girls: odds are, some day he won't be your boyfriend anymore. Do you want a pissed off ex-boyfriend to have "those" pictures to share at school?
  • Don't. Reuse. Your passwords. I read the news stories you don't, the ones about how some instant messaging company had their password database hacked into and stolen. That means someone has a whole list like "CoolKid23 uses the password MyDogStinks", and then they go around to other websites and try to log in with those same usernames and passwords. Make up different passwords for each website and chat program you use. Write them down on a piece of paper and leave it at home if you have to, or use a "password manager" program to do it for you. Yes, I know this sounds paranoid and geeky. But I'm telling you this with my hand on my heart: this is important. It's something you have to do. It's a pain in the butt, but that's just the way it is.

Have I scared you? If I did, I'm sorry. There are people who want to scare you because that's how they think they can get you to listen. I'm not one of them. But I do want to tell you the truth about how things on the Internet actually work. This is important stuff, and it's only going to get more important as we share more of our lives with our friends on the Internet.

I'm still proud of this great big network we've built, and I use it every day of my life. The Internet has a lot of exciting things to offer. Use them and have fun! Just be smart, and be a little suspicious before you send a message or a picture. Don't share the things you don't want the whole world to see.

OK? OK. Glad we had this talk. Now do your homework.

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