A child’s digital footprint begins as soon as a photo or name is posted online. Because everything online is potentially viewable to anyone with Internet access, it’s important for parents to be aware of what information is being posted by or about their child in order to protect their child’s personal and financial privacy.
According to the FTC, identity theft occurs when someone uses a name, Social Security number, credit card number or other personal information—without permission—to commit fraud or other crimes . This information can be used for a variety of purposes: getting a job, securing an identity for illegal immigration, paying medical bills, or purchasing a house.
Children’s Social Security numbers are extremely vulnerable to fraud. A recent study found 10% of its child participants were already a victim of identity theft. The youngest victim was 5 months old. Criminals seek out children’s Social Security numbers because, usually, they have never been used. An unused Social Security number means someone can easily pair it with any name or birth date, and the fraud can go undetected for several years—allowing plenty of time to establish phony lines of credit and enormous debts. 
Keeping Social Security numbers private is the most important factor in reducing the risk of identity theft. If a school or other organization needs a Social Security number, parents should always ask if it is absolutely necessary and if there are other options (i.e., Social Security numbers should never be used as ID numbers). Parents should have frequent, frank discussions with their children about the risk of identity theft, and teach the importance of never sharing Social Security numbers over the phone or through any form of connected technology.*
Keeping personal information private is crucial. Employers, academic admissions staff, and scholarship committees often use Internet searches to screen candidates. Depending on privacy settings, they might be able to see videos from a candidate’s 5th birthday party or photos from a high school track meet. In addition, identity thieves can guess Social Security numbers from information regularly posted on social networks (i.e., full name and state of birth) .
Parents active in social media and blogging may wonder what information is appropriate and safe to share as they discuss and post stories about their children, and as they teach children how to keep their personal information private.
The information children should keep private doesn’t deviate much over the course of growing up. Personally identifiable information such as birth dates, home addresses, phone numbers, and excessive pictures should always be avoided.
At an early age, it is important to establish the difference between personal information and public information with your child. As your child gets older, you should focus on reinforcing that message, but explain the nuances between public and private sharing. For example, emailing photos to a friend versus posting them on Facebook. Or, instant messaging versus commenting on a public forum.
By the time children are in high school, they should be keeping most of their personal information private, but they should also be encouraged to use the internet in helpful ways. For example, promoting concerts, service opportunities, local businesses, etc. A strong, positive online reputation can be an incredibly constructive force in a community, and it can attract college admissions officers and potential job recruiters.
*If parents suspect a problem, they should contact an identity theft specialist. Visit the ITRC’s website for facts and information, or call its hotline at (888) 400-5530. Parents can also find information on the Federal Trade Commission’s identity theft prevention website.
1: Federal Trade Commission. (n.d.). Fight Back Against Identity Theft: About Identity Theft. retrieved from http://www.ftc.gov/bcp/edu/microsites/idtheft/consumers/about-identity-theft.html
2: Power, R. (2011). Child Identity Theft: New Evidence Indicates Identity Thieves are Targeting Children for Unused Social Security Numbers. Retrieved from http://www.cylab.cmu.edu/files/pdfs/reports/2011/child-identity-theft.pdf
3: Acquisti, A. & Gross, R. (2009, July 6). Predicting Social Security Numbers from Public Data. PNAS. doi:10.1073/pnas.0904891106