Survey: Parents Worry About Kids’ Online Privacy: But are Worries Based on Facts?

by Larry Magid

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Common Sense Media’s “Protect Our Privacy – Protect Our Kids” campaign

Common Sense Media on Friday announced the results of a survey showing that “92 percent of parents are concerned that kids share too much information online, and 85 percent of parents say they’re more concerned about online privacy than they were five years ago.”

Along with releasing the survey results, the San Francisco-based non-profit organization is also launching a “campaign” with six main goals:

1) “Do Not Track Kids.”
2) The industry standard for all kids’ privacy should be opt-in.
3) Privacy statements should be clear and simple.
4) Parents, teachers, and kids need to be educated about protecting privacy.
5) Industry must innovate to protect kids and families.
6) Government needs to update privacy policies for the 21st century.

Putting the Data Into Context

While I applaud Common Sense Media for taking on this important issue and have no quibbles with their goals, I think it’s important to put the survey results into context.

The poll, which was taken in August of this year, reflects parents’ opinions, concerns and worries, but not necessarily their knowledge about the tools that do exist to protect their children’s privacy online. In the month prior to the poll there were lots of media stories about privacy. The survey was conducted shortly after the Wall Street Journal‘s series on tracking cookies which showed that many web sites (not necessarily social networking sites) place cookies on people’s computers to obtain non-personally identifiable information about them for marketing purposes and to tailor content.

Like any opinion poll, the one conducted by Common Sense Media reflects opinions, but opinions aren’t always based on an accurate understanding of facts.

That’s not to diminish the importance of opinion — we all need to take public perceptions seriously, but it is also important that we look at the way youth use social media to better understand if and how their privacy is being violated. For the most part, young people are not posting information that will jeopardize their safety and, increasingly, young people are limiting what they post because the word is out that what you say online can come back to haunt you later. That’s not to say that we don’t have more work to do to get young people to understand how to protect their privacy and pressure industry to do all it can, but the situation isn’t as dire as some people think it is.

Also, with due respect for my fellow moms and dads, as a recent New York Times article by Lisa Belkin points out, parents, as a group, often miscalculate what actually puts children in danger. As I pointed out in a previous column, one study found that parents are more concerned about Internet safety than drunk drivers, despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary. Thousands of people are killed each year as a result of drunk driving accidents involving teenagers compared to an extremely low risk of physical danger associated with Internet use.

The good news is that the leading social networking sites, including Facebook, have lots of privacy tools that young people can use to limit who can see their information. While not all are turned on by default, all are easily accessible via a link from the user’s Facebook Home page and Profile page. In addition, there are some additional privacy defaults for children both for general posts and when it comes to disclosing their location.

Extra Protection for Minors

On the surface it appears that minors have the same privacy default setting as adults but Facebook’s definition of “everyone” is different for minors than it is for adults. I suspect that very few parents are aware of this distinction, but Facebook does offer minors a significant level of additional protection. Perhaps they need to make this clearer.

To quote Facebook’s help section, the “Everyone” setting works differently for minors than it does for adults. When minors set information like photos or status updates to be visible to “Everyone,” that information is actually only visible to their friends, friends of friends, and people in any verified school or work networks they have joined. The only exceptions are for “Search for me on Facebook” and “Send me friend requests.”

Facebook also has additional protections for minors who use their “Places” location service.

Tracking Cookies

The tracking cookies issue is a lot more complex, and Common Sense Media is wise to raise the issue. But the issue of cookies goes way beyond social networking sites. They are used by many sites, including sites operated by major media companies. In many cases, their purpose is totally benign such as storing a user’s log-in information so they don’t have to enter it each time. Other sites use cookies to anonymously track activity within the site so as to better target content and ads while others place cookies on PCs that track behavior across sites. I join with Common Sense Media in encouraging people to better understand the use of cookies, to pressure companies to be totally transparent about how they are used and to give users the ability to turn them off.

Other Findings

The survey, which was conducted by Zogby, had some other interesting findings.

  • 75% of parents said they would “rate the job that social networks are doing to protect children’s online privacy as negative”
  • 68% said they’re “not at all confident in search engines keeping their private information safe and secure.”
  • 71% of parents say they’re “not confident in social networking sites keeping their private information safe and secure.”
  • 79% of teens think their friends share too much about themselves online which, in a way, is a good thing because it means that the vast majority of teens are thinking about privacy.

Teen Privacy Awareness is More “Normal” Than Some Imagine

This is not the first Common Sense Media survey on teens and privacy. A 2009 study (PDF) of teens that found that “28% of teens share personal information that you would normally not share in public.” That is a relatively high figure but if you turn it around, that means that 72% of teens don’t share such information. And since that poll was taken, there has been a lot more discussion about online privacy. I’m not suggesting we be happy with the 2009 results, but it’s important to note that most teens do limit what they post. And even that 28% figure doesn’t delve into how much and what kind of information they might not have shared or what the negative consequences might have been.

It’s important to be accurate when reporting teen behavior because what teens consider to be “normal “sometimes influences their behavior as in “if must be OK because everyone else is doing it.” There is a lot of research that shows that accurately reporting positive social norms encourages positive behavior. Just as with bullying, sexting, teen smoking and other forms of negative behavior, we need to send the message that the norm is not to disclose too much information but to think before you post.

It’s a bit out of date, but a 2007 study by the Pew Internet & American Life Project found that the “majority of teens actively manage their online profiles to keep the information they believe is most sensitive away from the unwanted gaze of strangers, parents and other adults.” That Pew survey found that only “3% of online teens and 5% of profile-owning teens disclose their full names, photos of themselves and the town where they live in publicly-viewable profiles.”

Although it deals with adults rather than minors, a 2010 Pew study found that young adults (18-29) are more likely to have changed their privacy settings than adults between 55 and 64 (71% vs 55%). Some of the young adults in this study are still in their teens. I’d love to see follow-up research on the privacy habits of 13 to 18 year-olds.

“There Ought to be a Law

In the 2010 Common Sense Media study, 88% of parents say they would support a law that requires online search engines and social networking services to get users’ permission before they use personal information to market products.

I’m not exactly sure what that really means. Before Congress could pass such a law it would need to consider what constitutes “permission” (technically, the typically obtuse terms of service that people agree to typically do extract that permission though I strongly agree with Common Sense Media that these terms should be written in plain English) and it would have to define “personal information.” If they’re talking about advertising that is based on demographics like age or approximate location, then Congress better also review advertising policies for TV, magazines and other media which almost always aim advertisements at specific groups, including children. Saturday morning TV and other children’s programs have aimed ads directly towards kids. True, TV is one-way but assuming sites are not tracking specific individuals, targeting ads towards a demographic is hardly a new practice.

As with any new laws, I urge Congress to think about the negative unintended consequences. While I also have very serious concerns about tracking cookies and inundating children with advertising, I worry that over-regulation could destroy the market for free services like Facebook, Google and the thousands of great advertiser-supported editorial sites..

Need for Education , Transparency and ‘Teachable Moments’

I completely agree with Common Sense Media’s call for more education. Parents, youth, educators, media and policy makers need to understand the facts behind Internet privacy and the way we can individually protect our privacy. We also need more transparency. Sites should not be allowed to hide legalese but should disclose all of their advertising and privacy practices up-front and in clear language. Also, there needs to be “just in time” disclosure and “teachable moments” where privacy tips pop-up at the point where people are about to disclose personal information.

Like Common Sense Media, I look forward to a national dialog on theses issues, but I urge that such dialog be based on facts, not myths or misperceptions.

Other Views

For other views on this issue, see Kara Swisher’s From the Department of the Obvious and my ConnectSafely.og co-director Anne Collier’s NetFamilyNews blog post Youth Privacy Study: Should We be Focusing on Parents Views

Disclosure: Larry Magid is co-director of ConnecSafely.org which receives financial support from several Internet companies including Facebook, MySpace, Yahoo, Google and AOL.

This video shows how to use Facebook’s more advanced granular controls. It’s a sequel to the introductory video, “Facebook’s Simplified Privacy Controls.”


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