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Selling Children’s Data and the Need for COPPA

By January 19, 2018 No Comments

Originally posted on Medium.

The main purpose of the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA) is to protect children’s information. However, as parents who work in the tech industry and are tuned in to what is going on in social media, we believe that COPPA needs to be expanded to include a larger age range, to truly protect our children.

Selling our data

When it comes to social media platforms, we as the users are the product. In return for free access to the platforms we willingly (and sometimes unknowingly) give away our data, for free, to these platforms. These platforms then take our data and sell it to other companies, allowing them to create targeted advertising, in the hopes of gaining new and loyal customers.

They track what pages we like — giving insight into our interests. Do we own or like dogs? They’ll feed us back ads that sell pet supplies. Are we a female between the ages of 25–34 and live in Seattle? We could be fed an ad from a retail store in Northgate Mall. The more we use these platforms, the more information they collect, making it easier to sell our information to sell us products and services.

As adults we may be okay with our data being sold. Sometimes the ads I’m fed show me innovative products that I would be interested in. However, I am aware that my information is being sold and I have some control over what information is fed into the marketing machines.

The monetary value of your children’s data

This selling of data is also happening to your children. Once they create accounts on social media platforms their information is being fed into the data machine. One of the biggest concerns about this is that children have less life experiences, are less aware of how these platforms work, and are not aware that they need to or can protect their information. This makes them extremely vulnerable in these platforms.

As children they haven’t yet fully formed their own opinions about things and are more accepting of the things at face value. When they are presented with ads, they trust that the information is accurate, that it is the truth. Their brains have not developed to start questioning everything and to weigh it against other facts they have learned.

Platforms want users, they want/need data to remain relevant and profitable. The younger they can start attracting users, the more lifetime value they will get out of them. Think of it in terms of buying something from a store. Let’s say I become a loyal customer at the age of 20 and they can retain me as a customer for 15 years, spending $500/year. That’s a $7,500 lifetime value. If that store can get my business earlier, but still retain me until I’m 35, they increase their profit from me. It’s the same thing with social media and other digital platforms.

What is COPPA?

In the same vein as we tell our children not to talk to strangers, COPPA was developed to help keep our children and their information safe in digital.

“The primary goal of COPPA is to place parents in control of what information is collected from their young children online.” — FTC

Any website or mobile platform that specifically states it is for users under 13 must comply with COPPA (and can face serious charges if found in violation of the protection act). Parental consent is required before platforms can collect personal information from children and then must ensure that information is kept confidential.

The protection act also means platforms must ensure that Personally Identifiable Information (PII) is not shared through their platform. This means users shouldn’t be able to share their phone numbers, real names, addresses, and any other information that in combination could identify the child.

COPPA protects children, but who then protects our teens?

At Risk

Teenagers are at a higher risk for developing depression and its effects of self-harm and suicide. They’re also more inclined to take risks as they start to become interested in independence.These risk factors are only heightened by social media. Where they are constantly exposed to inaccurate standards of beauty, wealth, and relationships, and are at risk for bullying and negativity.

When it comes to advertising and media, there is an argument that “children are especially vulnerable to advertising because they lack the experience and knowledge to understand and evaluate critically the purpose of the persuasive advertising appeals.” (Effects of Advertising on Youth) Advertising has the power to shape what is considered the norms of society, and because of the vulnerability of children, it has even more power to shape the ideas of children and teens.

Teenagers are heavily influenced by their peer groups and what they see in the media. Their purchasing decisions are based on what they see most frequently and what is popular with their friends — which are often the exact same things. This means that big brands, who have more ad spend money are more likely to be the requested brands by teenagers.

Social media advertising means that brands are making the choices for our children.

Join our movement

COPPA has taken some great strides to helping protect our children and their data. However, we think it needs to do more. COPPA currently only protects children 12 and under, meaning 13 year olds can engage in platforms and have their data sold. Users can post PII. However, children are still children at 16, and still need parental guidance.

According to a report from the Atlantic, there has been a shift in behaviours, where 18 year olds act more like 15 year olds, and 15 year olds act more like 13 year olds. Meaning the mental development and maturity of children has slowed. Childhood and adolescence are stretching beyond what has been the previous trends.

When it comes to digital, we obviously need to determine at what age it’s okay for children to engage in platforms unsupervised and start to take control of their own digital information, but as it stands we have to ask is it okay for a 13 year old to post information that could tell people where they are, where they go to school, and have their likes and data sold?

Technology and the internet have exploded in terms of development and innovation, and the rules that govern them have not kept up. So many people see the internet as this free space where anything is possible, where they can say anything, learn anything, be anything. In many ways that’s true, but just like society has rules and core values that define and govern how we interact with one another, what is acceptable behavior, and what is punishable by law, so too must the digital spaces we inhabit.

Social media platforms are making their money off the selling of data — our data and our children’s. While we may be conscious of that decision to sign away our rights on our data, surely we should have more control on what is out there in the world about our children.

It is this desire for a better digital experience for our children that Mazu was developed. Where no children’s data is collected and sold, and nothing is sold back to children. And we believe that COPPA needs to do more to protect our children on every platform, by raising the minimum age to 16. Giving us as parents more control of where their data goes, so that when they do enter digital on their own they are better equipped to make the right decisions for themselves.

Sign our petition, join our movement by downloading the Mazu app, or follow us on social media to take part in the discussion.

Help us spread a little positivity.

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