Tuesday, December 20, 2011

COPPA: Thoughts on the advantages and disadvantages of age restrictions

COPPA, the Children's Online Privacy Protection Act, was devised as a way to ensure that young children are prevented from sharing too much information online, and that sites do not purposely reap information from them. William Stites has done a great job running down the requirements COPPA puts on websites in his blog post: Dealing with COPPA: Compliance, the lies and the future. With a review of COPPA taking place tomorrow, I want to put together my thoughts about why COPPA hinders, but may also help parents and educators of young children.

Reasons to Change COPPA Restrictions
I recently attended a wonderful session sponsored by FOSI in which Alice Marwick, Amanda Lenhart, and dana boyd presented their recent research about teens online, then discussed issues with the audience. dana boyd's research clearly shows that COPPA has created a culture of lying online. Children (my son included, by his own admission) under 13 routinely alter their birthdates to join sites independently. While this is not a surprising behavior in the absence of directed teaching about the reasons COPPA exists, it is more concerning to learn that boyd's survey revealed that parents often encourage their children to lie about their age in order to circumvent the terms of service on websites. When asked, they state that they assumed the age restriction was just a suggestion, and that the parent could make the call. Similarly, teachers encourage students to create accounts on sites such as Khan Academy in order to augment their curriculum, without realizing that in order to join the site you must log in with an already existing Google or Facebook account. The choice for your 4th, 5th, or 6th graders, who will benefit greatly from the material on the site, is to encourage their parents to create one of these accounts for their kids - in other words, to lie about their child's age. Those schools incorporating iPads into their program have similiar issues with the need to create iTunes accounts for updates and app purchases, but are faced with the 13-year or older restriction for the creation of these accounts.

Reasons I'm not sure I am ready to give up COPPA Restrictions
Each year when I ask for hands of kids who already have email addresses, more and more hands of younger and younger kids go up. This year nearly all third graders have email accounts, and it seems they are all with Gmail. My students aver that their parents monitor their email activities and that they have talked about who to email, what types of messages to open and what types to avoid. However, the power of Gmail is not just in the email, but in the access to all the other tools Google provides. My argument for caution when removing COPPA restrictions is illustrated in the story of an eight year old who recently explored beyond his Gmail account to discover the wonders of Google sites. With a friend, he cooked up a fake religion replete with "temple" (his house, address included), a worship schedule, a place to publish prayers, and a survey made with Google forms. The survey automatically published it results on the site, including the name and email address of the participant, much to the surprise of classmates who participated in the survey. So thrilled were they with their cleverness that they brought flyers to school that had a photo of the student's home, the address and phone number and, of course, his full name. When I spoke to the children this is what I learned:

1. When asked if their parents knew about the "religion", the kids said yes. When I asked the parents what they knew, they said they thought it was a funny joke, but did NOT realize the home address and personal information was being posted on the Internet. In fact, they hadn't shown their parents the acutal site.

2. When I asked to see the site, the eight year old assured me that it was password protected and I wouldn't be able to find it. I used Google while they stood there and we found eight hits, all live, including the address of the child's house in the subtext of the hit. 

3. The parents were thrilled that these enterprising children knew how to create a website. It did not occur to the parents to check on the privacy settings of the site. The children assumed that what they did started as private and they would have to change the settings to make it public. 

In a perfect world, I would like teachers and parents to be the ones who make the call about when it is important for a child under 13 to have access to the rich web 2.0 opportunities that many websites offer. I would also like teachers and parents to be educated about how to guide these children in their educated, thoughtful, safe use of these tools. We still suffer from adults who throw their hands in the air and say, "The kids just know so more than I do about these things!" I'm sorry, I do not accept that excuse. Educate yourself. Test the tools. Read the articles. Protect your children by teaching them, interacting with them, and talking to them. Include media literacy and digital citizenship lessons at every grade level, integrated into every topic. 

If we, as adults, don't take the responsibility to actively teach our children, the laws like COPPA need to be there to keep reminding us of our jobs - yes, even if such restrictions make our lives more difficult.

Share your thoughts on COPPA with the FTC: https://ftcpublic.commentworks.com/ftc/2011copparulereview/