Digital Privacy: Who Is Watching and Tracking Your Kids?

boy_with_smartphoneAs adults most of us remember clearly the dawning of the Internet. I recall the emergence, when I was in college, of this crazy thing called a chat room. Many hours were spent in these wild new commons “chatting” with strangers around the world about, well, mostly stupidities, and all the while my term papers languished …

But our kids were born into the digital age. They have been suckling at the Internet’s teat since Day One and now, the rules set up to protect them are way past their freshness date.

The Federal Trade Commission is finally updating the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act of 1998 and wants to hear from you. There’s a huge reason why we, as the parents of a digitally savvy generation (from toddlers who download their own online games to teens who socialize primarily in a digital environment), should care:

Right now, strangers are trying to get closer to our kids. And those strangers do not often have our children’s best interests at heart.

When your child is out in the real live world, do you want strangers sidling up to them and plugging them for information about their lives? Do you want strangers, who hope to make money off your kids, seeking them out on the playground, or in school, or while they’re at the library or movie or mall, pretending that they are your child’s good, familiar friend, and then slyly fishing around for your kid’s preferences, tastes, feelings and personal information?

Of course not. While most of us understand that “stranger danger” is an overblown myth, we would also agree that our children have the right to privacy, safety and to interact intimately only with people they know and trust. You don’t want a marketing specialist looking to profit off children secretly talking up your kid at the park.

But marketers and corporations are fighting for greater access to our kids while our kids lead their digital lives. Companies like Facebook and Disney aim to have intimate informational relationships with our kids, relationships that will affect the way our children behave, influence their values, and potentially shape the way they see themselves.

As Businessweek reports:

“COPPA, as the existing regulation is called, requires websites aimed at kids to get parental consent before gathering information about those users who are under 13. But data brokers and the companies they work for have found a way around that. Software installed on kids’ websites can collect personal information without parents’ approval. The companies operating the sites can argue that they aren’t responsible for what the brokers are doing.”

Now the FTC wants to hold both the brokers and the sites responsible for getting permission from parents to track their kids online.

Some numbers, courtesy of Common Sense Media (a fantastic resource on all media issues for parents):

  • Half (52%) of all children now have access to one of the newer mobile devices at home, either a smartphone (41%), a video iPod (21%), or an iPad or other tablet device (8%).
  • More than a quarter (29%) of all parents has down-loaded “apps” (applications used on mobile devices) for their children to use. And more than a third (38%) of children have ever used one of these newer mobile devices, including 10% of 0- to 1-year-olds, 39% of 2- to 4-year-olds, and 52% of 5- to 8-year-olds.
  • In a typical day, 11% of all 0- to 8-year olds use a cell phone, iPod, iPad, or similar device for media consumption, and those who do spend an average of 43 minutes doing so.
  • More than half of all 2-4 year olds have used a computer.

And while our kids are playing Angry Birds and Makeup Girls (and status-updating on Facebook, listening to music, watching TV and even doing their homework), marketers are mining for “psychographic” data: What makes our children excited, happy, scared, stressed, insecure.

Then they’ll sell that personal information to the highest bidders, while creating a lives-forever digital blueprint of your child’s identity.

As Common Sense Media puts it: Whether downloading music or filling out a profile to play the newest online game, kids are potentially risking their reputation, security, and identity.

Is your 5-year-old vulnerable to sophisticated marketing manipulation? Mine is. Many 16-year-olds are, too.

Parents have been commenting to the FTC on the proposed rules. But corporations are pushing, too.

More from Businessweek:

“Among [the comments] were ones from Facebook and Disney. Facebook argued that software such as its “Like” button should be exempt since it isn’t used to target ads. Disney wants its site to be exempt because it’s aimed at families and not just kids.”

No, Disney, my husband and I are for sure not cruising your site Saturday night after the kids are in bed, looking for some “family” entertainment.

As Common Sense Media CEO James Steyer said last fall after the FTC released its suggested COPPA updates, “Parents — not social networks or marketers — should absolutely remain the gatekeepers when it comes to their children’s online privacy.”

Regulation, of course, isn’t everything. Kids can, and do, lie about their age.

And as millennium parents, we must begin early teaching our kids about digital safety, critical thinking and smart choices. We need to be vigilant when it comes to protecting our children—there’s no doubt that responsibility lies with us as clearly as buckling our infant into a car seat or talking to our tween about alcohol and drugs.

Still—kids’ online behavior should not be tracked.

The FTC is accepting comments until Sept. 10.

Learn more about privacy the sneaky ways advertisers target kids.

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