December 30, 2012 Linnette Attai

A recent Pew Internet Research study tells us that a whopping 81% of parents of children aged 12-17 are concerned about how much information advertisers can gather about their children online. 72% of parents are also concerned about how their children may be interacting with strangers on the Internet. The concerns are especially strong for parents of 12-13 year olds.

Yet despite all of this fear and worry, there’s no denying the incredible benefits that technology offers children, and there’s certainly no stopping the digital generation.

At PlayWell, one of my roles is to help companies build safe social networking sites and mobile apps for children and teens. I work with businesses to shape the technology, policies and practices needed to create robust products that are safe and appropriate for young users. But I believe that educating parents about technology is also a critical part of ensuring that children stay safe.

So, what do parents need to know to about their children’s privacy and safety?

First, let’s separate the conversations a bit. Privacy and safety are related, but they are not interchangeable terms.

In the industry, when we talk about privacy, we are usually referring to both the collection of personally identifiable information and non-personal (and usually “silent”) data collection. The collection of personally identifiable information through sites and apps that are intended for children under the age of 13 is regulated by law. So, for parents, on those sites, or in instances where a site operator knows that the user is under 13, companies are required to ask for your permission before collecting the data from your child.

As for non-personal data, it’s a bit more complicated. The biggest concern you’ll hear about in the news is behavioral targeting. Generally speaking, this is when data about your browsing and viewing habits are collected across time and across multiple sites in order to build a profile of you. This profile is then used to serve you ads that a company thinks will most interest you. The profiles are generally built based on algorithms and panel data from other users. It’s the “you” that a company extrapolates based on where you go and what you look at online.

When it comes to children, the industry has self-regulated to avoid behaviorally targeting children, and the Federal Trade Commission has now updated the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act to make behavioral targeting of children under the age of 13 a violation. By law, companies are not allowed to behaviorally target children.

So, do you breathe easier? Yes and no. It doesn’t mean that data isn’t being collected, and you still have some homework to do.

Companies are required to post privacy policies telling you what data they are collecting – overtly or silently – about children, why they’re collecting it and what they’re doing with it. Parents, you need to read the privacy policies. Yes, they can be long, complicated and hard to understand. We’re working on that. In the meantime, give it a shot. If there are terms – cookies, pixels, beacons – that are unfamiliar, a web search should uncover the information you need to help to take the mystery out of the technology. Then you can decide if the site’s practices are aligned with what you will allow for your child.

As I mentioned above, safety is a different – but related – term. In the industry, when we talk about online safety and children, we’re primarily speaking about preventing crimes and other nefarious behaviors. There’s conflicting data about whether or not the rate of crime against children has increased with technology. Some research tells us that crimes that had once been facilitated offline have simply moved online, and that better investigative techniques have led to increased arrests, even if the actual rate of crime hasn’t changed.

Either way, I would argue that even one crime is too many. It’s incumbent upon the industry to keep safety top of mind when creating websites and mobile products that are meant for children or that might appeal to them. As for parents, teach your children early and often about Internet safety. Here’s where privacy enters the picture, as privacy mishaps can often be a gateway to safety issues.

Break it down for your children:
1) If you don’t know someone in the real world, you don’t know them online. They are not your friends. They are strangers.

  • You teach your children about “stranger danger” in the real world – teach them the same concept for the digital world. And just as you know who your children’s friends are in real life, ask them who they’re friends with on the Internet. If your child has 200 friends on a social networking site but only knows 30 people in the real world, it’s likely time to make some adjustments.

2) Passwords are private, and are not to be shared.

  • Businesses ask you to create passwords in order to provide you with control over your private data. Unfortunately, children are increasingly sharing passwords with their friends. This can expose your child’s social networking accounts to more strangers, increasing the safety risk. There can be a bit of peer pressure involved with sharing passwords, as it’s often done among young children as an indicator of friendship. Be sure to give them the tools they need to resist.

3) Be honest about your date of birth.

  • Sites restrict young users by age in order to comply with privacy law and to help keep children safe. Allowing your children to lie about their age in order to access a site can open them up to safety risks. Those age gates are in place for very good reasons, and we can’t protect your children if they pretend to be older than they are.

4) If you see something on the Internet that makes you uncomfortable, say so.

  • Be sure your children know that if they see something that doesn’t sit well with them, they should tell you. Also, learn where the report buttons are on the sites that your child visits. Figure out how to use them (there are usually parent guides or other tutorials posted) and show your children what to do if they need them.

There’s more, but those are some of the basics that will help you get started. There’s no need to scare children about the potential dangers of the Internet any more than you do about the dangers of playing outside. With good business practices and your help, we can put children on the path to smart and safe digital citizenship. Spend some time with them learning about the sites they visit and digging into the privacy policies, safety features and site practices to be sure you are both comfortable. Then enjoy and breathe a little easier.