Expert Commentary

Facebook and the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act

2011 study published in the online journal First Monday on the online practices of 1,007 U.S. households with children, including age of initial registration and parental knowledge.

Father and daughter online (istockphoto)

The 1998 Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA), in a bid to protect the privacy and safety of younger netizens, requires that minors aged 13 or younger gain explicit parental consent to access commercial websites. Many sites such as Facebook and YouTube, however, have chosen to avoid any potential conflicts with the law by banning  such younger visitors altogether, though this restriction is easily circumvented during the registration process. To what extent is COPPA circumvented on Facebook, and by whom — parents or children?

A 2011 study by danah boyd, Eszther Hargittai, Jason Schultz and John Palfrey in the online journal First Monday, “Why Parents Help Their Children Lie to Facebook About Age: Unintended Consequences of the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act,” examines the online practices of 1,007 U.S. households with children. In a July 2011 survey, qualifying parents were surveyed about the Facebook habits of their children ages of 10 to 14, including age of initial registration, parental knowledge and/or enabling of Facebook participation, and how well parents understood the age-restriction policies of both COPPA and Facebook.

Key study findings include:

  • More than three-quarters (76%) of parents surveyed reported that their child joined Facebook when she was younger than 13, the minimum age in the site’s terms of service.
  • Parents have become more actively involved in assisting their children sign up for Facebook access, and at younger ages. For instance, 2008, parents assisted their 11-year-old children to access Facebook 47% of the time, while in 2010, parents assisted their 9-year-old children 78% of the time.
  • Only 53% of parents said they were aware that Facebook has a minimum signup age; 35% of these parents believe that the minimum age is a site recommendation (not a condition of site use), or thought the signup age was 16 or 18, and not 13.
  • Eighty-nine percent of parents approve of a minimum age for Facebook participation; however, suggestions for an appropriate minimum age range from 11 to 18.
  • Additionally, 78% of parents think it is acceptable for their child to violate minimum age restrictions on online services.  Reasons given for violating Facebook terms of service include facilitating communications with parents, other family members, and friends, the educational value of using the program, and the sense that parents, not legislators or software, should have the final say on what software children have access too, and when.

The researchers conclude, “The online industry’s response to COPPA’s under-13 rule and verifiable parental consent model is largely proving incompatible, and at times, antithetical to  many parents’ ideas of how to help their children navigate the online world.”

Tags: privacy, children, consumer affairs, parenting, privacy

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