If you've ever read the terms of service for sites like Gmail or Facebook, you may have noticed that in order to sign up for the sites, users have to be at least 13 years old. This age cutoff for restricting users is one way that companies have responded to the Children's Online Privacy Protection Act, or COPPA, which regulates how companies can collect and use information about children under 13.
As the name suggests, the act is meant to protect children's privacy. But a study released this week suggests that the opposite may be happening: parents are helping their kids lie to get onto Facebook, which then tracks them as if they were old enough to be tracked. Danah Boyd is a media researcher and one of the authors of the study. Danah, welcome to On the Media.
Thanks for having me.
Tell me the origins of COPPA.
The Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act was created in 1998 to protect young people's privacy, both with targeted marketing and also with physical safety.
Now, 1998 was a long time ago and in many ways at that time the kinds of sites that were, you know, collecting data about children were often doing it for targeted marketing. And they decided that children under the age of 13 would be more vulnerable to manipulation online, so the law was extremely well intended.
But a decade later things have changed radically, and the social media sites that we see and the communication platforms—you know, the Gmails and Skypes, as well as the Facebooks and Twitters—part of participation involves sharing content.
Now, the authors of the legislation imagined that this under-13 cutoff would oblige the Facebooks of the world to get affirmative parental consent for anyone 12 or younger to use these sites. But instead, something very different took place.
Correct. There are sites that directly target children who are under the age of 13, and those sites, actually, go through a whole set of procedures based on the requirements of COPPA to comply. And those sites actually collect credit card information or require a lot more information to be shared by parents for participation.
The communications services that we all know and love and the social network sites, they find that complying is actually too complex for them. So what happens with parents who don't have a credit card, parents too don't want to give more data about their children for them to participate, parents who are, for various reasons, uninvolved with their kids' lives - all of this sort of makes the whole space a real mess.
So, by and large, the companies who are dealing with general-purpose sites just decided, you know what, we’ll just focus on 13-plus.
Okay, so the terms of service for Facebook, for example, or Gmail say you have to be 13, because they don't want to be involved in the morass of qualifying underage users. And that's where it ends, right? Parents say, “oop, sorry! [LAUGHS] No, you're too young, you can’t be on Facebook.”
No. Unfortunately, one of the things that we learned in this study was that parents, not only do they know that their under-13 children are on these sites, but they’re also helping them create their accounts. And they’re doing so en masse.
What was most surprising to me was the fact that almost three-quarters of parents, regardless of whether their kid was on Facebook or not, thought that it was perfectly acceptable for their child to violate minimum age restrictions.
I was also completely surprised how many parents thought that the age restrictions were a recommendation and not a requirement.
You mean, like a PG movie recommendation, as opposed to the law of the land.
A lot of parents are really used to MPAA ratings, and they make a decision as a parent whether or not to allow their tween to get access to that PG-13 movie. Likewise, I think that one of the things that we’re seeing from this data is that parents are interpreting these age restrictions as a general recommendation.
They're saying, hey okay, this is probably only appropriate for kids 13 or above, but my child, you know, is perfectly mature, or my child is in an environment where I can support him or her and make certain she understands, you know, how to interact in these spaces.
And so they're using this and saying this is a general guideline, and they don't want restrictions. And they don't want the government, they don't want companies to step in and tell them how to be a parent.
In fact, one of the things that was very clear in our data, 93 percent of parents said that they should have the final say about what happens with their kids online.
But I’ll bet you if you said to the parents who had lied to get the kids online, “how would you feel if the website were tracking your child's traffic all across the Internet,” they would say – oh, it would be horrible. No, no, don't let him do that.
Not only did we ask them if they're concerned about targeted marketing, we asked them how frequently they thought their kids were on the receiving end of targeted marketing. And, while parents were actually quite concerned, a huge number of them reported that their kids were not being [LAUGHS] exposed to targeted marketing, which is most likely to be completely inaccurate.
By and large, participation in online environments means that you are actually on the receiving end of targeted marketing.
So let's say my 10-year-old says to me, Daddy, I – I want to be on Facebook, and I, for whatever reason, say, sure. And she says, well, you know, I – I – it says you have to be 13. And I say, oh, we’ll fix that. How do I fix that? What do I have to do to violate these terms of service?
To get past Facebook's process, you actually have to make her birth date so that she is now currently over the age of 13. And you may have to actually erase the cache, open it up in a new browser because Facebook does try to make it difficult for you to just keep changing your age in order to get access.
Over half of parents of 12-year-olds report that their kid has a Facebook account. This is by no means something that just a few people are doing.
And, you know, not only that, 76 percent of those actually assisted in creating those accounts.
So, in addition to whatever my child may be exposed to, in terms of data tracking or content, we are also having this nice parent- child exercise in learning how to – you know, lie.
One of the things about these violations is that they've completely normalized lying; lying has become status quo. For young people, when you’ve normalized the idea that lying will keep you safe, that lying is the way to get access, we have to raise serious questions as a culture to say, well, what are the implications that this has? It's not just happening in the home.
I was, you know, aghast to watch how often law enforcement comes in during assemblies and tells kids that in order to be safe online, they should actually lie about their location. So kids are hearing messages all around them that lying is both the way to get access and the way to be safe online.
One of the funny things you will find on these sites is that a huge number of kids actually say that they're from Afghanistan or Zimbabwe, which are the countries alphabetically at the top and the bottom of the possible countries you could be –
So based on the stats of Facebook and, and MySpace, there are more people online in Afghanistan and Zimbabwe than there are living there.
[LAUGHING] Danah, thank you very much.
Thank you so much for having me.
Danah Boyd is a media researcher and co- author of the study, “Why parents help their children lie to Facebook about age: Unintended consequences of the “Children's Online Privacy Protection Act.”