By Anne Collier
A whole lot of us know that 13 is Facebook’s minimum age, but fewer of us know that the reason for that is not kids’ online safety but a law called the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act designed to protect the privacy of kids’ data – a law administered by the Federal Trade Commission, which right now has it under review. COPPA requires parental consent before sites can collect any data from children under 13, so because of the costs the law created, most general-audience Web sites simply don’t allow U13s.
But the authors of a new study about the unintended consequences of COPPA – “Why Parents Help Their Children Lie to Facebook About Age” – found that, by requiring “parental consent” in one area, data protection, COPPA undermines it in another: parents’ ability to decide when Facebook and other social sites are appropriate for their own kids. And parents’ response has been not only to condone their “underage” children’s Facebook use but in the vast majority of cases to help them sign up, the study found.
Parents support kids, not COPPA
Among parents of 10-to-14-year-old Facebook users, 84% were aware their children signed up and, of that 84%, nearly two-thirds (64%) even “helped create the account,” the authors wrote. “Our data show that many parents knowingly allow their children to lie about their age – in fact, often help them to do so – in order to gain access to age-restricted sites in violation of those sites’ Terms of Service. This is especially true for general-audience social media sites and communication services such as Facebook, Gmail, and Skype, which allow children to connect with peers, classmates, and family members for educational, social, or familial reasons.” In other key findings, “based on a national sample of 1,007 US parents who have children living with them between the ages of 10-14,” it’s interesting to note that 53% of the parents know Facebook has a minimum age; 35% think it’s “a recommendation, not a requirement”; and 78% reported various reasons that make it “acceptable for their children to violate access restrictions.” A few other takeaways about us parents from the authors:
* “As a result of COPPA, lying about one’s age has become normal, and parents often help children lie, [which] creates safety and privacy issues.”
* “Online safety and privacy are of great concern to parents, but most parents do not want solutions that result in age-based restrictions for their children.”
* “Parents are open to recommended age ratings and other approaches that offer guidance without limiting their children’s access.”
COPPA’s unintended consequences
The authors – danah boyd of Microsoft Research and New York University, Eszter Hargittai at Northwestern University, Jason Schultz at University of California-Berkeley, and John Palfrey at Harvard University – write that COPPA, though well-intended, has these unintended consequences:
* “Because children lie about their age, these sites still collect data about children under 13 that COPPA would otherwise prohibit without explicit parental consent.”
* “Rather than providing parents with additional mechanisms to engage with sites honestly and negotiate the proper bounds of data collection about their children, parents are often actively helping their children deceive the sites in order to achieve access to the opportunities they desire. Were parents and their children able to gain access honestly, the site providers might well present them with child-appropriate experiences and information designed to enhance safety, provide for better privacy protections, and encourage parent-child discussions of online safety. With deception being the only means of access, these possibilities for discussion, collaboration and learning are hindered.”
* “Such a high incidence of parent-supported Terms of Service circumvention results in a normalization of the practice of violating online rules. This results in a worst-case scenario where none of COPPA’s public policy goals for mediating children’s interactions with these websites are met.”
* As for the online industry: “Instead of providing more tools to help parents and their children make informed choices, industry responses to COPPA have neglected parental preferences and have altogether restricted what is available for children to access.”
So why are parents letting kids lie about their ages?
Because “they want their kids to have access to public life,” the study’s lead author, danah boyd, told my ConnectSafely.org co-direct Larry Magid in an interview for CNET. “Today, what public life means is participating in commercial sites. They want to help their kids get on these sites and use them responsibly.”
“These are not parents who are saying, ‘Oh, get on Facebook’ and then walk away,” danah continued. She’s found from talking with young people and their parents around the country in her field work that “these are parents who have the computer in the living room, they’re having conversations with their kids, they’re often helping them create their accounts to talk to Grandma. They’re helping them actually negotiate all of this. And they want to do it often in the middle school years, when they can actually have reasonable conversations about how to act responsibly and where they can be present in this.”
So it’s not the parenting that’s flawed but the law: “That’s the irony of COPPA, right? The law was meant to empower parents to have these conversations with their kids … to encourage exactly what ends up happening as a result of lying,” danah told Larry. “What we’re seeing in this data and what I’ve seen ethnographically for the last 5 to 7 years is that parents are actually really engaged in these conversations. It’s that they want their kids to have access and they don’t like companies or for that matter the government to come in and say this is a site that’s only for a certain age and impose restrictions.”
* “Kids, Privacy, Free Speech & the Internet: Finding the Right Balance” (PDF), by author and tech policy analyst Adam Thierer at George Mason University
* Harvard law professor Lawrence Lessig’s “The Code of Privacy” in Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society, 2007
* Some thoughts from me on what children want in social media: “U13s on social sites: Who’ll get the equation right?”
* ConnectSafely.org’s Larry Magid’s coverage of the study, including the audio interview, in CNET
* The Internet Safety Technical Task Force (which I served on) spent a year looking into online age verification, concluding that it is not the solution state attorneys general were seeking. Here’s our report.
* Illustrating why regulation is problematic in a social media environment, much of which is a reflection of people’s everyday lives, updated in real time: “OSTWG report: Why a living Internet’?”