Foursquare & other geolocation apps: For young adults, not kids

It’s a good idea for parents to know if their kids are using location-based games or apps on their cellphones. If they are, talk with them about the privacy features and make sure they’re playing only with real-life friends.

By Anne Collier

More and more, I’m seeing tweets about people becoming mayors of coffee shops in my Twitter stream. They’re playing Foursquare on their phones, which pushes their “checkins” or location disclosures out to their Twitter followers. Foursquare is part cellphone social-mapping game, part Yelp (another way to find food, drink, or friends using your phone’s geolocation technology). “A large number of foursquare users send their checkins to Twitter and/or Facebook, and therefore make their location available to an audience much larger than just their foursquare friends,” says Foursquare. It’s not for everybody. Someone over at eModeration in the UK (a company that helps keep kids safe in virtual worlds) thinks it’s kind of dumb. It’s really not for children. But there’s a safer way to play it, if they insist. If yours do, ask them not to use their real photo; you don’t want them identified by their photo in shops or restaurants where they “check in.” They can just post a face shot of their avatar or dog or favorite cartoon character in their profile. One of the appeals for kids (young and old) is that, like kids’ virtual worlds that sell real-world plush toys, Foursquare has real-world objects that serve as awards or “nerd merit badges” representing “the virtual achievements you get for checking in to places using Foursquare,” Mashable reports. In other words, you get points for showing up at your favorite Starbucks, points which can add up to becoming its “mayor.”

This week I testified at a US House of Representatives joint-subcommittee hearing on “The Collection and Use of Location Information for Commercial Purposes” – the privacy and safety implications of just this sort of technology. There definitely seemed to be a consensus in the hearing room that consumer privacy law needs to be updated and that, to be effective over the long term, the updating shouldn’t focus on any single technology. I completely agree with that because the people who used to have control over how cellphone users’ location information is used – the mobile carriers – no longer always do. More and more, control is spread out across the spectrum: carrier, operating system provider (e.g., Apple, Google, Microsoft), app developer, and consumer (because, with apps like Foursquare, we’re disclosing our own location). It’s all becoming a mashup – which is why parents need to know that all these apps on iPhones and iPod Touches allow kids to share their location.

So – if your child’s phone is on a family plan behind your password with, say, AT&T or Verizon Wireless, and if you don’t use the parental control that blocks app downloads (something to consider if they’re not telling you what they download) – it’s a good idea periodically to check what apps your kids have on their phones and ask them what these apps do. If they share your child’s location with anyone besides you, you’ll want to have a conversation about who’s on their contact list. Make sure it’s only friends they know in “real life.” Certainly all this goes, too, for iPod Touches, which are not on family cellphone plans. As for Google Buzz, which is both phone- and computer-based, see my post on that; parents will want to help their kids see the value of making their conversations “private,” or just among friends, which points to a negotiation: All participants in the conversation need to agree that it’s just for them and adjust privacy features accordingly.

[BTW, Foursquare isn’t the only location-based cellphone app. Others are Brightkite and Whrrl (see this blog post); Gowalla, which isn’t a social game (see this blog post); and the cellphone service loopt, which is becoming more app-like (see Mashable.com).]

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