In his recent State of the Union address, President Joe Biden made history by calling for apps and websites “to prioritize and ensure the health, safety and well-being of children and young people above profit and revenue in the design of their products and services." Meanwhile, new bipartisan legislation—the Kids Online Safety Act—introduced by Democratic Senator Richard Blumenthal and Republican Senator Marsha Blackburn. This Act would assert new regulatory power over the tech industry by, among other things, strengthening privacy protections, banning targeted advertising to children, and demanding that tech companies stop collecting their personal information.
While we applaud these measures, we are also mindful of the important role that parents and educators must play too. Legislation alone will not protect children from the myriad of online issues they face. It must be combined with education, which is still sorely lacking.
“The few opportunities being offered — to both kids and adults — to learn or comprehend general children's privacy concepts and user rights is also fueling issues,” says LinkedIn Vice President & Head of Global Privacy Kalinda Raina, CIPP/US.
We agree with Ms. Raina that “we cannot focus narrowly on just a few issues.” Kids must understand all of it, before they can deal with any of it.
Here are just some ways we believe parents and teachers can help keep children safe online.
Use Privacy Protections Already In Place
Nearly every social media network—from Instagram to Snapchat, Facebook, and more—requires users to be at least thirteen years of age to open an account. That’s because social media networks must abide by a law known as the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA).
Passed in 1998, COPPA protects every child under the age of thirteen. The act requires website and online service operators to provide notice and obtain permission from a child’s parents before collecting the child’s personal information, such as name, address, phone number, and screen name. Companies also cannot collect geolocation data that could identify a child’s street address, or store any files containing a child’s image or voice. Anything that can identify what the child is using, like cookies, IP addresses, or the unique device identifier (UDID) for mobile devices, is restricted by COPPA.
When children under 13 open social media accounts, this federal law cannot protect their personal information from being collected and shared with third parties. Yet 60 percent of parents with children aged ten to fifteen say they would allow their children to pretend they are older to bypass these age restrictions.
Passing additional privacy protection measures seems fruitless when children and parents don’t abide by measures already in place.
Additionally, many of the social media apps popular with young people offer excellent opt-in privacy protections already. Yet few users know about or use them. For example, following a multimillion-dollar fine imposed by the U.S. Federal Trade Commission for earlier privacy violations, TikTok upgraded its privacy offerings. Users can, among other things,
Set their accounts to private so only users they approve can follow them and watch their videos.
Apply different privacy settings to each video they share, even if they have their account set to “Public”.
Limit who can comment on their videos.
TikTok also offers a Family Pairing feature that allows a parent to link their TikTok account to their teen's in order to set controls that include: screen time management, content management, restrictions on direct messaging, and more.
Teach Kids How To Protect Their Own Privacy
Teens are notoriously excellent at evading privacy measures imposed upon them, so an even more effective measure is to teach them how to protect their own privacy. A good first step, and something we do in our Cyber Civics classes, is to have them actually read the privacy policies of apps and sites they love and use. When we did this in classes last year, students were surprised to discover how much personal information Instagram—one of the most popular teen apps—collects:
We collect information about how you use our Products, such as the types of content you view or engage with; the features you use; the actions you take; the people or accounts you interact with; and the time, frequency and duration of your activities. For example, we log when you’re using and have last used our Products, and what posts, videos and other content you view on our Products. We also collect information about how you use features like our camera.
Since teens generally detest being followed, tracked, or analyzed by anyone, when they discover (for themselves) just how nosy Instagram is, they begin to view it and apps like it with much more caution and scrutiny. But don’t just take our word for it, current research shows that, contrary to popular belief, youth care about their data privacy, and this concern is increasing.
Teach Kids That Nothing Online Is Free
A very basic and important understanding for any child about to use the Internet is this: Nothing online is free. We pay for it with our personal information (see above) or through advertising.
Yet, research conducted by Stanford University found that young people cannot detect ads they see online. Researchers discovered that 82% of middle schoolers couldn’t tell the difference between content labeled as “sponsored content” and editorial content.
Legislation won’t fix this problem, but education can. Among the dozens of Cyber Civics lessons on Privacy, Personal Information and Media Literacy is a this one: “The Anatomy of a Results Page.” It teaches students how to read a Search Engine Results Page (SERP), that page you get whenever you search for something. They learn that results with the words “Ad” or “Sponsored” are commercial advertisements that appear because someone has paid for them and that search engines make money by running search related ads. They discover that Organic Search Results are the results they are actually searching for, often for schoolwork. These are not paid for by anyone and cannot be bought, and they are sometimes especially difficult to identify. They also learn that people using the exact same query can receive different results, customized for them through the magic of algorithms (another lesson entirely).
Teach Kids How Their Data Feeds Algorithms
In addition to understanding privacy and advertising, it is important for young Internet users to know how websites and apps are using the personal data people freely provide. They should understand how this data feeds the algorithms that tech companies use to provide recommendations on everything from what videos to watch next, what news to read, what music to listen to, and who to be friends with. They should know what it means to be in a “filter bubble” of one’s own making (yes, we offer a lesson on this). This will help them make educated choices about how much personal information they are willing to share in exchange for the customization they receive in return.
This Is Just The Tip of the Iceberg Folks
The tech issues kids face today are many. Too many for legislation alone to fix. Indulge us as we take a look at just a few more:
Body Image: Last year we all learned that Instagram’s internal research shows that seeing ideal images of beauty on the app may contribute to body image issues related to anxiety and depression. This screams for the necessity of teaching students basic lessons on Visual Literacy. These would show them how images are easily manipulated online (our “Has FaceTune Gone Too Far?” lesson does just this).
Fake News: Certainly we all can agree that online misinformation is having a devastating impact upon our democracy and civil debate. We must teach kids how to detect (and not to share) online misinformation (we offer nearly a dozen lessons on this topic alone!).
Cyberbullying, Sexting, Hate Speech: I’m not sure what law could effectively banish this depressing trio, but I do know this: Teaching young people what do if they encounter any of these (and they will) works. The advantage of cyberbullying and online hate is that everyone can see it; that means anyone can do something about it. When it comes to sexting, it is downright unconscionable that we don’t already teach every teen about the serious consequences of being either the sender or the recipient of sexually explicit images. We must arm kids with basic responses to these all-too-common online occurrences (we offer several lessons on each of these issues as well).
Digital Reputation Management. Parents everywhere are worried that their children’s futures will be ruined if an unfortunate post goes viral. Teaching kids why and how to manage their reputations (and those of their friends) can alleviate these worries (and, yes, we have a whole unit of lessons devoted to just this topic).
The point is, Ms. Raini is right, "We need to look at the entirety of young people’s interactions online.” The online world is complex, and protecting or teaching kids about just one part of it—through legislation or education—won’t protect them from all of it. There are many good places to turn for quality, non-fear-based, engaging lessons on digital literacy—for all ages— that can be easily embedded into a school day or used at home. If you don't know where to look, please ask us!
Diana Graber is the founder of Cyberwise and Cyber Civics. She is also the author of "Raising Humans in a Digital World: Helping Kids Build a Healthy Relationship with Technology."