Are your kids hiding their web activity? Learn about the pros and cons of Private Browsing

Private browsing (sometimes called hidden or incognito) is…well…just what it sounds like.  It allows you to maintain some privacy when visiting web pages.

By surfing in a “private” or “hidden” window:

  • Pages you visit will not appear in your browser’s history list
  • Searches will not be part of your search history
  • Pages will not be able to store cookies.  A cookie is small file that a website stores on your computer.  While cookies can be helpful, for example remembering your name next time you visit Amazon, some cookies are used by advertisers to show you ads related to your interests.  So, browsing privately can help prevent this kind of ad-tracking activity.

What are the benefits of private/hidden web browsing?

Private browsing has benefits.  If your family shares a computer, there may be times you want to hide your web site visits from the family.  You may be researching birthday present ideas for your kids, and don’t want them to come across those searches.  Use a private browsing session, and your search terms won’t show up as a recent search.

Or you may want to prevent companies from “tracking” you all over the web.  For example, I was on and noticed that a favorite movie of mine, Fight Club, was available for a low price.  I didn’t buy it but did put it on my “wish list”.  A few days later, while visiting Facebook, I saw this add in the sidebar:


Now, if I had browsed privately, that Amazon visit would not be remembered by the web browser.  Facebook would have to serve me up another ad (maybe Turbo Tax?).

But remember it works both ways.

Let’s take a look from another perspective – that as parent.  We want to maintain our privacy and our children’s privacy online .  We may be uncomfortable with the idea that companies can target ads to our children.  While private web browsing can help prevent it (not necessarily eliminate it), keep in mind that the solution also gives children the means to hide their website activity from you.

You may be checking the browser’s history (in most cases you can click Control-H) to review the sites your kids are visiting.  But your tech-savvy kids may know all about incognito or hidden or private web browsing; you may not be seeing all their activity.  You’ll need to use parental control features to view the sites that may be hidden.  For example, Microsoft Family Safety will report my daughter’s web site history regardless of the browser settings.

If the family computer is in a public location in the home (recommended!) you may also look for the visual cues that a hidden window is use.  Here’s how it works in popular web browsers.

Chrome calls it an Incognito Window

Ctrl-Shift-N will open a new Incognito window, or click the little lines in the upper right and choose Incognito window.


When an incognito window is open in Chrome, you’ll see this little icon in the corner:


More about Chrome’s incognito window – “Pages you view in this window won’t appear in your browser history or search history, and they won’t leave other traces, like cookies, on your computer after you close all open incognito windows. Any files you download or bookmarks you create will be preserved, however.”


Internet Explorer calls it InPrivate Browsing

Ctrl-Shift-P will open InPrivate browsing in Internet Explorer.  (This is from IE version 9)


When InPrivate browsing is open in Internet Explorer, you’ll see the words InPrivate near the address bar:


More about Internet Explorer’s InPrivate Browsing: “InPrivate Browsing helps prevent Internet Explorer from storing data about your browsing session. This includes cookies, temporary Internet files, history, and other data. Toolbars and extensions are disabled by default.”

Firefox calls it a Private Window

In Firefox, choose “New Private Window” from the Firefox menu, or Ctrl+Shift=P.


When a Private Window is open in Firefox, the Firefox menu tab is purple with a small icon, as shown here:


More about Firefox’s Private Window:  “In a Private Browsing window, Firefox won’t keep any browser history, search history, download history, web form history, cookies, or temporary internet files. However, files you download and bookmarks you make will be kept.”

Safari calls it Private Browsing

In Safari, click the gear icon and choose Private Browsing.


With Private Browsing enabled, you’ll see the word PRIVATE near the web address.


Private Browsing on Mobile Devices

On Apple devices, the default Safari browser offers Private Browsing.

If you prefer NOT to have this feature available for your child on their iOS7 device, there are two things you can do:

1. Enable web content filtering – this will block adult web sites AND keep the web history even with Private browsing enabled.  (Useful for younger children where you also want to block adult and unknown web sites, but you’ll spend more time adding exceptions to the list)

2. Disable Safari and use a kid-safe browser – many of these alternative browsers keep a report of visited sites that you can access.

On Android and other mobile devices, you may have to install a browser that offers Private Browsing.  For example Firefox for Android –


There are other ways to prevent companies from tracking you all over the web, and I’ll talk about some of these tactics in future articles.  For now, know that private browsing can help keep your web activity private, but also gives kids a way to hide things from you.  As always, ongoing discussions about appropriate computer use and expectations are key.



About Jean

Hi! I'm a webmaster, technology educator and creator of Be Web Smart. I hope you found this article useful. If you are new here, you might like to sign up for e-mail updates, view Links and Resources on similar topics, and subscribe to the RSS feed.