Stuart Snape, Managing Partner, Graham Coffey & Co. Solicitors, shares his expert thoughts on the importance of online security and privacy for children under 13, including the key role parents play in this vein
Online privacy and the regulation of the huge social media organisations is front and centre of national and international debate. As organisations have moved to cement their presence online the availability and accessibility of all types of companies and marketing has exploded. Children under 13 are considered particularly vulnerable from the readily available myriad of websites, which include the large players such as Facebook and YouTube.
The Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act
In the U.S., the Federal Trade Commission has tried to grapple with this issue since the 1990s, leading to the introduction of the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act.
The problem that arises from measures such as these is that organisations simply prohibit the use of their sites by children under 13. You may think that’s the problem solved. But in reality, this simply leads to age fraud – children accessing the same sites but using a fake date of birth.
The real problem lies with a lack of reliable age verification and a willingness of web operators to facilitate this by failing to introduce any measures to prevent children from lying about their age.
And it is this “laissez-faire” attitude that has led to the growth in spying apps that allow parents to monitor their child’s online activity. This seems to indicate an acceptance by parents that children will be active online – rather than try and prevent them accessing a site or driving them to do so secretly – it would be more effective to simply monitor their use. Many of these apps will help parents see what their children are posting, deleted texts and messages sent via WhatsApp, etc.
Child’s right to privacy
Of course, there are those who will claim this infringes a child’s right to privacy, but of course, there is also a parent’s right to safeguard their child and, as a parent myself, I would always place my child’s safety above any of their own rights. In fact, I would go further to suggest that parents have an open discussion with their children about why their online activity is being monitored.
Parents cannot neglect their own responsibility to educate their children on the dangers that lurk online. As in real life, the best protection that can be offered to children is education. Give them the means to make their own decisions and the understanding to appreciate the risks of having an online presence and make sure they know that they can talk to you.
Sexting and other concerns
So-called ‘sexting’ can be particularly damaging. The practice of sending or sharing nude pictures may seem like harmless fun to children. They often don’t understand that once those pictures have been shared they have lost control of them and how they are then shared thereafter. Many children simply don’t appreciate the permanence of such pictures that can often find their way online and be very difficult to retrieve. But encouraging your child to be open and honest is a good way to try and help mitigate the damage.
Parents should be supportive and have an open and constructive conversation with the child. If the images were posted on social networking sites, help the child to delete them as quickly as possible. If they were sent to a friend then contact that friend and ask them to delete the image also. If a parent feels the images have been shared among friends, then speak to the school. If there are concerns that the image has already been shared on other networking sites, then message those sites urgently and request immediate action. In the UK, Childline can help and support parents in removing the pictures and also in providing counselling for the child. And finally, if you feel your child has been groomed or coerced into sending the pictures, involve the police.
The Federal Trade Commission: Online security
The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) is the sole federal agency in the U.S., tasked with both competition jurisdiction and consumer protection in broad sectors of the economy. One aspect of the FTC’s mission is, “protecting consumers” when it comes to the areas of privacy, identity and online security.
The FTC says that while kids can socialise online, such a benefit comes with a risk. Adults, therefore, have a key role to play when it comes to talking to their children about making responsible decisions and reducing risk. It is worth mentioning here the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA) is enforced by the FTC. COPPA aims to, “protect kids’ personal information on websites and online services — including apps — that are directed to children under 13.”
In addition, COPPA stipulates that parents should be notified about the sites and services directed to children under 13. The approval of parents is required under this law before a child’s personal information is collected, used or disclosed. The FTC’s website explains this point further.
“Personal information in the world of COPPA includes a kid’s name, address, phone number or email address; their physical whereabouts; photos, videos and audio recordings of the child, and persistent identifiers, like IP addresses, that can be used to track a child’s activities over time and across different websites and online services.”
The wider issue
No amount of education can really protect children for one simple reason: They are children. We cannot expect them to make sensible decisions. We cannot expect them to be rational or to be able to weigh up the ramifications of their decisions, but we can try and make sure that they understand the importance of involving their parents, especially when things go wrong.
The danger we face as a society is that by trying to force organisations to incur expense in the hope it will protect our children is just as likely to push those organisations to avoid that expense by simply banning children from accessing the sites – knowing that by doing so those children will simply continue to access the sites and apps albeit it under fake names or with fake dates of birth. By driving use underground it reinforces the idea that the children should operate secretively online and can even encourage children to see their use as rebellious.
Governments and agencies still operate under the delusion that they can monitor the internet and protect vulnerable users. In the UK, the government
has recently announced the appointment of Ofcom as the online harms regulator. But the reality is that creating rules and regulations are the easy part – finding ways to enforce these rules is a huge challenge especially when the organisations operate across borders.
Parents need to step up to the challenge in a way that legislators and internet operators simply haven’t. Bring internet use in the open. Offer to help children access sites in return for an agreement to monitor their use. Give them as much information about the dangers and risks and then ensure they feel supported in those times when they make mistakes.
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