The Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act was established in 1998 and is enforced by the Federal Trade Commission. It requires websites to obtain parental permission before collecting any personal information from children under the age of 13. This is supposed to better protect the privacy of children and better ensure their safety from online predators. However, is it effectively doing that? A new study conducted by the Polytechnic Institute of New York University suggests otherwise.
The study claims that when online social networks restrict usage by children under the age of 13, some children are simply motivated to lie about their ages when registering for the sites. When children lie about their ages when registering for such sites, it not only puts their privacy at risk, but the privacy and protection of children who do not lie about their ages, as well.
The research team mined data from Facebook using what they referred to as “modest online crawling, computational resources, and simple data-mining practices.” In doing so, they were able to build extensive profiles on most minors at three targeted high schools in the United States. The profiles included such personal information such as full names, locations of hometowns and high schools, grade-levels, and profile pictures.
The research team suggests that such personal information could be sold to data brokers, and it could be used in phishing attacks. Worse yet, this could facilitate physical dangers to children from stalkers, predators, and potential kidnappers.
More telling still is the fact that the research study included an analysis of privacy leakage both with and without the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act. They determined that attackers can actually gain more information about minors with the law in place. They suggest that social media sites could better protect the privacy and safety of children by disabling the reverse look-up of friends feature that allows anyone to find a child’s hidden information through a friend’s page. It is vital that parents and children be cognizant of the fact that that the actions of a virtual friend could compromise a child’s privacy and his safety.
Until online social networks do so, parents should be diligent in monitoring their children’s Internet use by checking periodically to see what sites they are using. This can be more readily accomplished if children’s computers are in a central location in the home where parents can more readily oversee what their children are doing on the computer.
Additional strategies to protect children from predators, both in the virtual world and the real world, can be found in my award-winning book, What Would You Do? A Kid’s Guide to Staying Safe in a World of Strangers. The book is available in hardback cover through, Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Books-A-Million, and through Follett, Baker & Taylor, and Ingram’s catalogues.
Picture credit: Nevit Dilmen