Children’s Online Privacy. Parents, Developers or Regulators Responsibility?

Children’s Online Privacy:  Parents, Developers or Regulators Responsibility?
By Francisco Miguel Aguirre Villarreal | February 23, 2022

As a parent of four daughters under 10 and user of social media and gaming platforms, I am in awe of the current trends, viral videos and what kids (not just minors) are posting nowadays. And looking at it, I constantly ask myself about what the girls will be expose to and socially pressure to do, see or say on their teen and pre-teen phase.

This concern its not only mine and it’s not exclusive to this point in time. In the 90’s, legislators and social organizations drafted ideas to protect children from misuse and harms in websites. Those ideas ended up in Congress passing the 1998 Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA). It basically states that websites aimed at children under the age of 13 must get parental consent along with other rights to protect their privacy and personally identifying information.

But, because of the additional burden that COPPA compliance carries, most apps and sites not designed for children, social media at the top, prefer to direct their services to adults by adding to their privacy statements clauses to ban or mention that the services are intended for +13, +16 or +18.

The foregoing creates two different main problems, a) for children intended apps or sites, COPPA’s parental consent doesn’t always work, since Children will not wait for parent approval and can falsify approval or search for less restrictive sites, which opens the door for them to access inappropriate content or share data that can be used for advertising or targeting them for purposes that can be harmful, and, b) Social media and other apps not intended for children are still being used by them just by lying about their age to enroll, without any parental consent or, in many cases, without parents even knowing about it. Since apps and sites assume that they are not children, they will not be treated as such and can leave them completely exposed to identity theft, predators or a handful of potential risks, on the other hand parents doesn’t even know their children enrollment so they can’t do anything to protect them and finally the law, as progressive as it may be, will just be, in most cases, reactive for an event that already occur.

Among the findings of the 2020 report “Responding to Online Threats: Minors’ Perspectives on Disclosing, Reporting, and Blocking” conducted by Thorn and Benenson Strategy Group was that 45% of kids under the age of 13 already use Facebook and 36% of them reported experienced a potentially harmful situation online. And this is just Facebook, the numbers are not considering Snapchat, Tik Tok, Instagram and many others available in the market in addition to what may appear in the future.

So, who is responsible for children’s online privacy? First, parents have the responsibility of communicating with their children to make them aware of the risks they are exposed to and monitoring their online activity to early detect potential harms. This might sound easy but finding the balance between surveillance for protection and spying on their children might not come as easy. Still, it’s a necessary or even mandatory task for parents to protect them and informed them. Secondly, legislators and regulators should have a data base of complaints and confirmed cases to gradually typify and incorporate them into the applicable laws, both for developers and perpetrators. These constant updates can modernize children’s online privacy legislation and make it more proactive than reactive. Third, developers must create minimum ethics standards within companies, communicate possible harms on an easy readable format and inform presented cases to children and parents for easy understanding of potential harms. If social organizations, developers, legislators and regulators work together on regulations and principles to protect minors, it would be more fluid, efficient and, above all, safe for children, understanding that the final responsibility will always be carried by parents. Let’s work together help parents minimize that burden and better protect children.

Works Cited:
Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA) of 1998

16 CFR Part 312, the FTC’s Children’s Online Privacy Protection Rule

Thorn, Benenson Strategy Group, Responding to Online Threats: Minors’ Perspectives on Disclosing, Reporting, and Blocking, 2021

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