Study: why parents help their underage kids pretend to be 13 in order to use Internet sites

Danah boyd writes, "I'm really excited to share a new study that Eszter Hargittai, Jason Schultz, John Palfrey and I have been working on for the last six months that has serious implications for parenting, education, free speech, and children's rights. While COPPA is meant to protect privacy and empower parents, it is usually implemented by general-purpose websites to simply block children from accessing the sites. Interestingly, many parents appear to respond by helping their children violate the age restrictions, thereby minimizing the protections that COPPA actually provides. Anyhow, as you probably know, COPPA is currently under review and there are pending laws that build on it. With that context in mind, we decided to investigate how effective COPPA is at actually empowering parents. The results of our study are now published."

Facebook, like many communication services and social media sites, uses its Terms of Service (ToS) to forbid children under the age of 13 from creating an account. Such prohibitions are not uncommon in response to the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA), which seeks to empower parents by requiring commercial Web site operators to obtain parental consent before collecting data from children under 13. Given economic costs, social concerns, and technical issues, most general–purpose sites opt to restrict underage access through their ToS. Yet in spite of such restrictions, research suggests that millions of underage users circumvent this rule and sign up for accounts on Facebook. Given strong evidence of parental concern about children’s online activity, this raises questions of whether or not parents understand ToS restrictions for children, how they view children’s practices of circumventing age restrictions, and how they feel about children’s access being regulated. In this paper, we provide survey data that show that many parents know that their underage children are on Facebook in violation of the site’s restrictions and that they are often complicit in helping their children join the site. Our data suggest that, by creating a context in which companies choose to restrict access to children, COPPA inadvertently undermines parents’ ability to make choices and protect their children’s data. Our data have significant implications for policy–makers, particularly in light of ongoing discussions surrounding COPPA and other age–based privacy laws.

Why parents help their children lie to Facebook about age: Unintended consequences of the ‘Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act’

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