There is a growing policy discussion about how government should act in an environment in which personal information—about both children and adults—is widely collected, analyzed and shared as a new form of currency in the digital economy. Many details about the lives of online (and offline) Americans can be found using simple search queries and their traits and interests are often easily discovered through their social media posts and through the social networks they build. Unless they take specific measures to prevent certain information from being tracked, internet service providers track much of their online behavior and amass this information to deliver ads to them. Most of the free services available online involve a trade off: In return for being able to access services online for free, information is collected about users to deliver targeted advertising.
In the U.S., websites that are collecting information about children under the age of 13 must comply with regulations established under the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act. In effect since 2000, these rules have required website operators to obtain parental consent before gathering information about children under the age of 13 or giving them access to “interactive” features of the site that may allow them to share personal information with others. Some of the most popular web properties, such as Facebook, have opted to avoid the parental consent framework and instead forbid all children under the age of 13 from creating accounts. Yet, previous studies from the Pew Internet Project and other media scholars have suggested that many underage children continue to use social media, many lie about their age, and in some cases, parents are helping their children circumvent restrictions to gain access to the sites they wish to use.
The Federal Trade Commission recently proposed changes to COPPA that would address some of the radical technological changes that have occurred since the law was first written. The proposed modifications include a new requirement that third-party advertisers and other “plug-ins” will have to comply with COPPA, and the definition of “personal information” has been expanded to include persistent identifiers such as cookies and location information that includes a street, city or town name. With respect to age, websites that cater to a mixed-age audience (such as Disney.com) will now be allowed to “screen” a user’s age and only be required to provide COPPA protections for users age 13 and under. However, sites that are directed at users under 13 will still have to treat all users as children. Nearly 100 public comments have been filed in response to the FTC’s latest proposed changes to COPPA—some of them critical of the burdens these changes may place on small businesses such as app developers, while others filed in support of the updates, noting that new definitions and clarifications help strengthen the law’s original goal of helping to protect children’s privacy online. The Pew Research Center’s Internet & American Life Project does not take positions on policy issues, and as such, does not endorse or oppose any of these proposed changes.
Over several years, the Pew Internet Project talked to teens and their parents about issues related to privacy, identity, and information sharing. This summer and early fall, the Pew Internet Project conducted a nationally representative survey of parents and their teenage children that focused on some of these issues. The results from the parents section of the survey are reported here.
In collaboration with the Berkman Center for Internet & Society at Harvard, this report also includes quotes gathered through a series of exploratory in-person focus group interviews about privacy and digital media, with a focus on social networking sites (in particular Facebook), conducted by the Berkman Center’s Youth and Media Project. Between May and December 2011, the team, led by the project’s Director Sandra Cortesi, conducted 16 focus group interviews with roughly 120 students. The focus groups included youth in grades 6-12 from diverse schools and varying socio-economic backgrounds, including Boston, Cambridge, Brookline and New York. This report includes selected quotes from participants that illustrate various youth perspectives toward parent participation in social media spaces. Future reports issued by the Pew Internet Project and the Berkman Center will include extensive reporting of the teen responses to the national survey, as well as additional qualitative research results.