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October 1, 2000
Vol. 58
No. 2

Children's Online Privacy

Educators need to stay vigilant about protecting the online privacy of students.

It is no secret that children and teens are early adopters and avid users of the Internet. According to a recent estimate, the number of U.S. children and teenagers online will grow from just under 9 million in 1999 to more than 13 million by 2005.
The Internet uniquely combines the communication features of traditional technologies with the content of diverse media. The abilities to communicate through the Internet and to gain access to a wide array of content and services make the Internet a highly engaging medium for children and adults. Students can tap in quickly and easily to the vast educational and informational resources, making online access an especially vital tool. Schools, then, have an obligation to help protect all students' privacy in this new online environment.

Privacy Online

The interactive nature of the Internet means that we are no longer simply receivers of entertainment and information. We are also providers of information that is valuable to those who want to sell us products and services. Often, we provide access to our personal information without even knowing it. By registering for a site, we may be giving away personal information to that specific site. A common practice of Web sites is to place cookies—electronic devices that track a user's online movements—on individual computers. Privacy in the online world is a concern for all users of online technology and must be guarded—not just because of possible violations to privacy in the present, but also because of what might occur in the future.
Children and teens present a special case. Young people's involvement in the online world raises the issue of privacy both in and out of school. The first federal Internet privacy law, which went into effect in April 2000, specifically addresses issues of children's online privacy—the Children's Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA).

The Need for COPPA

COPPA provides safeguards to protect the online privacy of children under age 13 by regulating the collection of children's personal information. It requires commercial Web sites targeted at children under 13 (and any Web site that knowingly collects information from children under 13) to secure parental permission before collecting, using, or disclosing children's personal information. It also ensures that parents have the opportunity to review information collected from their children and to delete information if they choose. Web sites must also post a privacy policy detailing what personal information they are collecting, how it will be used, and whether it will be given to third parties.
Research conducted by the Center for Media Education played an integral role in formulating and passing COPPA. Kathryn Montgomery, the president of the center, recalls the circumstances that triggered her research for Web of Deception: Threats to Children from Online Marketing (1996), which focused on deceptive online practices targeted at children. She had tracked the developments in Internet trends and knew that advertising and marketing to young people would be an issue in the online world. In 1995, as she sat in the audience at a Digital Kids trade conference, Montgomery was struck by what she saw would be the future of the online environment for children.
At the conference, she listened to people from advertising agencies and marketing firms imagining the revenue-generating potential of the Internet—particularly from kids. There was talk of developing one-to-one relationships with children and creating personal communications between spokescharacters and children. An atmosphere of celebration pervaded around this "great opportunity" to sell to children online. Industry researchers had employed anthropologists to study children's online behavior. The studies found that children become so deeply absorbed in online activities that they enter a "flow" state—or a noncritical state of mind which makes them especially vulnerable.
We know from scholarly research that children understand advertising differently than adults do. Therefore, the rules that apply to children have to be different from those that apply to adults. The Children's Television Act (CTA) of 1990 was passed to restrict the merging of advertising with other content in children's television programming. But in the early days of Web site production, advertising and content were totally merged on some sites. Children were asked, often by attractive spokescharacters, to give up personal information about themselves to gain access to fun online activities or in exchange for free gifts.
Children cannot be expected to stop and think about the possible consequences of submitting personal information—especially when they are tempted by the promise of fun and gifts. Child advocates are concerned that, among other things, profiles of individual children could easily be created and then sold to third parties. In addition, marketers can build brand awareness and loyalty over years. Ultimately, it is unfair to children who are not cognitively equipped to realize what they are giving up when they provide access to personal information.
Although COPPA provides some safeguards for children under 13 by ruling that parents have to give permission for sites to collect personal information, in the best of all worlds, safeguards should extend to children older than 13. A recent study released by the Annenberg Public Policy Center (Turow & Nir, 2000) points to teens' readiness to provide access to personal information when offered a free gift. According to the report, young people seemed initially concerned about protecting their personal information and were nervous that Web sites might obtain information about them; when they were offered a free gift in exchange for personal or family information, however, many more children than adults were willing to provide it.

Protecting Students

Although teachers and administrators are understandably eager to acquire the computers, software, and online connections to help students stay on the cutting edge of technology, they must weigh important considerations. A number of companies offer schools help in acquiring this technology, but in some cases, schools must agree to provide access to students' personal information and submit students to online advertising or to more passive ways of building brand loyalty. Schools should not enter into such contracts lightly when the price is subjecting students to online advertising or allowing corporate marketers to mine students' private information.
Legislation is pending to protect students in schools from online marketers such as ZapMe!, a business venture that offers schools free computers and satellite broadband Internet access but obligates schools to use software that collects personal data about their students and requires them to view commercial messages. The Student Privacy Protection Act was recently passed as an amendment to part of a larger education bill, indicating that lawmakers are paying attention to privacy issues in the new context of online data collection. Educators and parents have to clock in as well.
It is the responsibility of adults who care about children's privacy to monitor sites for noncompliance with COPPA and to watch for the development of unfair or deceptive practices. (Complaints can be filed with the Federal Trade Commission online at www.ftc.gov or phoned in at 877-FTC-HELP.) Although it is often difficult to track what children do online, we must meet that challenge and stay informed about how young people use these new interactive technologies and what those uses mean in the context of their daily lives and to their healthy development.
As with other communication technologies, the new interactive technologies have great potential to help our society. However, that interactive component, which is often cloaked in a falsely perceived anonymity, makes these new technologies especially powerful—and potentially dangerous. A strong network of educators can help get the word out about unfair or deceptive practices aimed at children in and out of schools.

Montgomery, K.C. (1996). Web of deception: Threats to children from online. Washington, DC: The Center for Media Education [On-line]. Available at www.cme.org/children/marketing /deception.pdf

Turow, J., & Nir, L. (2000, May). The Internet and the family 2000: The view from parents, the view from kids. Philadelphia, PA: The Annenberg Public Policy Center.

End Notes

1 For more information on COPPA, go to the Center for Media Education's guide to COPPA Web site (www.KidsPrivacy.org).

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