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How the Grinch Steals Christmas: He Tracks Your Kid Online

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In Dr. Seuss’ timeless tale, the Grinch had to wait until all of Whoville was asleep, tie his dog to a sled and slink down a few too-tight chimneys in order to steal Christmas from the Whos. In 2013, all a savvy criminal needs to do is follow your kids on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, Tumblr, Vine, Foursquare, Google+ and/or Snapchat to figure out when the coast is clear.

There have been enough publicized cases (and even one insurance commercial) for most adults to know that publishing the details of your comings and goings for the world’s perusal (and approval) can lead to more than just the jealousy of a few frenemies. Yet hardly a day goes by that you can’t log into one of those services and see your “friends” talking about airport delays, creating their own vacation trip hashtags or Instagramming pictures of where they are – thereby letting the world at large know where they aren’t.

And if adults can’t resist, you know teenagers can’t.

With Facebook’s new rules allowing children under 18 to publish publicly-visible updates to the world, let alone myriad other social media services that allow your kids to brag to the virtual world about their IRL-activities, it doesn’t matter how circumspect you think you are being about your holiday travel plans if you don’t educate your kids to do the same.

So how do you get your kid to be a little more private in public? As anyone who has ever parented a teenager knows, an outright ban isn’t going to work – and any kid who is savvy with their privacy settings can lock you out even as they broadcast to the world. So here are some starting points for that conversation.

1. Update those privacy settings

Facebook, Foursquare, Tumblr and Google+ all allow users to toggle settings to make things more or less visible to the world at large (though, honestly, your kid probably isn’t using Google+). Twitter, Instagram, Foursquare and Vine all allow users to turn public posts on and off at will (though, if they’ve already accepted strangers as “followers” on those services, strangers can still see their posts). Talk with your kids about their privacy settings, how to set them up and who they’re sharing location information with – and how that puts their brand new Christmas gifts at risk.

2. Talk about who is allowed to “follow” your kids

We all participate in social media for more or less the same simple reason: personal affirmation. Likes, retweets, reblogs and little thumbs-ups all feed into the basic human desire for positive attention – and as much as that’s important to adults, it’s even more important to teenagers. But even as it’s ego-flattering to have strangers think your thoughts, pictures and videos are worth their time, kids should take the time to check their follower lists and think about what they’re sharing, who they are sharing it with and whether those people have their best interests at heart. Then you can block people, limit their access to information and talk together about whether every friend- or follow-request is one that really needs to be accepted.

3. Personal messages vs. public updates

As your Instagram-using teenager undoubtedly knows, the company introduced Instagram Direct last week, which allows users the share photos and videos with one user or a small group of other users. Twitter now allows people to share photos in direct messages (which would’ve saved former Congressman Weiner a world of embarrassment). Google+ has private group hangouts. Facebook allows large group messages. Perhaps rather than sharing their updates with the larger universe when they feel compelled to overshare, your kids can be encouraged to keep it to a smaller group.

4. #latergram

Though the Internet moves at the speed of light (unless the airplane WiFi is lagging), your kids’ status updates don’t have to. Instagram users created a hashtag — #latergram – to denote pictures posted long after the fact. Foursquare allows you to check in after you leave. Facebook lets you tag pictures with location data long after the fact. So if your kids can’t resist a little less-than-humblebragging, remind them that it tastes no less sweet if you’re all home safe before they have at it.

5. Just say no

There’s no time like the present to have a go at the old parental saw, “Well, if the other kids jumped off a cliff…” But instead of going old school, try updating it. Remind them of the six kids arrested after documenting on social media the vandalism at ex-NFL player Brian Holloway’s house earlier this year. Talk about all the cases of cyberbullying. Inquire if any of their older “friends” or followers seem creepy (or if that’s happened to their friends). Talk about what living their life in cyber-public can mean, and what a few posts could mean to their security at home, and listen to what they say. Try to decide together to go dark for the holidays and then keep to it.

We all tend to assume the best about people, even on the Internet, even with all the evidence to the contrary – and few of us are as optimistic now as we were as teenagers. So learn what your kids are doing, and help them understand the risks and talk about why this time of year makes them a huge target for criminals.

It’ll be easier than explaining the truth about Santa.

Image: Jaren Wicklund

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