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New campaign targets online privacy for children and teens

New campaign says legislature must support children's online privacy.
Common Sense Media's new campaign asks schools to do more to teach students about online privacy.

Amid growing concern about how much information students are revealing about themselves in their personal profiles on social networking web sites and other online services, the national child advocacy group Common Sense Media is asking adults, parents, and teens to help make a stand for online privacy by demanding that companies provide an “opt-in” feature for sharing the information of all children under the age of 18.

Common Sense Media’s national campaign, called “Do Not Track Kids,” began from what the group considered to be startling statistics about online privacy.

According to the Wall Street Journal, 50 of the most popular U.S. web sites are placing intrusive tracking technology on visitors’ computers—in some cases, more than 100 tracking tools at a time. Fifty sites popular with U.S. teens and children placed more than 4,000 “cookies,” “beacons,” and other tracking technologies on their sites, the Journal reported—and that’s 30 percent more than were found on similar sites aimed at adults.

“Tracking technology scans in real time what people are doing on a web page, then instantly assesses their location, income, shopping interests, and even medical conditions,” explained Common Sense Media. “Individuals’ [personal] profiles are then bought and sold on stock-market-like exchanges that have sprung up in the past 18 months.”

The worst part, says Common Sense Media, is that children over the age of 13 have no say on whether or not their personal information is collected—or their personal profile is shared.

In a survey of more than 2,000 adults and more than 400 teens in August, conducted by Zogby International on behalf of Common Sense Media, 75 percent of parents said they would rate the job that social networks are doing for children’s online privacy as poor.

“Anytime personal information is taken without consent is worrisome,” said Alan Simpson, vice president of policy for Common Sense Media. “According to the poll, they’re worried about child predators and their children’s ability to secure a job or college placement because this information is floating around out there. It really has become the wild, wild West out there.”

According to the poll, a majority of teens (56 percent) don’t believe their personal profile is secure and private online, or they’re not sure if it is. Seventy-nine percent of teens also revealed that they think their friends share too much personal information online.

“The poll results present a clear divide between the industry’s view of [online] privacy and the opinion of parents and kids,” said James Steyer, CEO and founder of Common Sense Media. “American families are deeply worried about how their personal information is being used by [tracking] technology and online companies, yet the companies appear to be keeping their hands deep in the sand.”

Time to take action

Currently, companies are prohibited from collecting personal information from children younger than 13, but 67 percent of parents polled said they would feel most comfortable if this age were raised to 18.

Eighty-five percent of teens in the poll said that search engines and social networking services should obtain permission before using the information in a personal profile to market products.

“Adults are more apt to understand how things work: You get something for free, and in return you give up some privacy,” said Simpson. “But are children [and] teens capable of making those kinds of choices? Do they really understand the magnitude of these decisions? This is what’s at the crux of the argument.”

Going one step further, the poll also showed that parents (88 percent) and adults in general (85 percent) would support a law that required online search engines and social networking services to get permission before they use personal profiles to market products, regardless of age.

Besides an opt-in age requirement, Common Sense Media also is advocating for clearer and simpler online privacy statements, because 85 percent of teens and 91 percent of parents say they would take more time to read terms and conditions for web sites if they were shorter and written more clearly.

Also, parents, kids, and schools need more education about protecting online privacy, and schools should be more involved in teaching teens about online privacy, the group says.

According to the poll, 75 percent of teens say they think adults are a better source of advice for staying safe online than friends, and 70 percent of parents say they think schools should play a role in educating students about online privacy.

“Parents are looking to schools because they’re looking for help,” explained Simpson. “Also, as technology becomes more prevalent in schools, it’s important to understand not only the benefits of this implementation, but have schools educate about the need for privacy protection as well.”

As part of its “Do Not Track Kids” campaign, Common Sense Media recently announced a new web site aimed at helping parents protect their kids’ online privacy:

The site provides tips on how to protect online privacy, how companies use tracking technology to obtain and share information from personal profiles, how not to leave an online information trail, and more. The site was created with help from experts in online privacy.

“We are all responsible for addressing this enormous challenge,” said Steyer. “The industry has to listen to what parents are saying, parents and kids have to educate themselves, schools should teach all students and their parents about privacy protection, and finally, policy makers have to update privacy policies for the 21st century.”

“Everyone is in new territory here with online privacy, as using online tools becomes more prevalent,” said Simpson, “so we’re also looking for help from educators in our mission.”

When asked whether kids could simply not use social networks or certain search engines, Simpson responded: “You can’t wish this technology away. Kids will use it no matter what, and we have to accept that.”


Common Sense Media

Common Sense Media’s resource page

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