Keeping Kids Safe in Cyberspace

Cyberspace presents us all with opportunities for acquiring knowledge. Last week, we explored how playing video games can enhance spatial intelligence. But cyberspace also has its dark side. It provides online entities with the power to commoditize our private information, to mislead us with disinformation and propaganda, and to target the innocent and naïve for exploitation. The safety of children in cyberspace is the subject of this week’s blog.

In a recent talk, children’s privacy expert Angela Campbell, Professor of Law at Georgetown University, noted that online usage is pervasive among children today. Even before the pandemic, over one half of all US children had access to a smart phone by age 11. Instead of broadcast television, kids today watch YouTube videos on demand. They can ask Alexa to tell them a story instead of their parents or grandparents. Perhaps most alarmingly, children can upload pictures and videos to social media which become viewable anywhere.

Consider the social media app, now known as TikTok. Extremely popular among tweens and younger children, TikTok allows kids to synchronize tunes from its music library with homemade videos, and to post them online. Users must register with an email address, phone number, full name, username, a profile picture, and a short bio. During its first three years of operation, didn’t ask for the user’s age; since July 2017, the company has asked about age and prevents people who admit they’re under 13 from creating accounts.

Public concerns about lead the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) — the regulator responsible for enforcing the 1998 Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA) – to file a complaint. The subsequent settlement of February 2019 required to pay a $5.7M civil penalty, and to change their practices to ensure COPPA compliance. Upon announcing the settlement, FTC Chairman Joe Simons stated that “knew many children were using the app, but they still failed to seek parental consent before collecting names, email addresses, and other personal information from users under the age of 13”, thus violating COPPA.

The FTC also filed a complaint against Google and its subsidiary YouTube, alleging that YouTube violated COPPA by “collecting personal information—in the form of persistent identifiers that are used to track users across the Internet—from viewers of child-directed channels, without first notifying parents and getting their consent.” YouTube made millions by using this information to deliver targeted advertising on these channels. The September 2019 settlement required Google and YouTube to pay a fine of $170M. It also required the defendants to ensure COPPA compliance by developing, implementing, and maintaining a system to “identify their child-directed content on the YouTube platform”, and by providing “notice about their data collection practices” and obtaining “verifiable parental consent before collecting personal information from children.”

These two examples merely scratch the surface of the threat to children in cyberspace. There are many surreptitious ways in which online presences with agendas try to influence and/or exploit children. Online sources of information may look authoritative to kids, but actually teach biased, misleading, or false truths. Seemingly innocuous children’s channels on YouTube may masquerade as educational resources, but actually provide merchandising vectors directly into the young psyche. In worst case scenarios, private information and videos shared by kids in cyberspace can empower bullying, stalking, and targeting of the young and the innocent, leading in extreme instances to tragedy.

So, the dangers to our children in cyberspace are real. What can we do about them? Professor Campbell makes the following suggestions:

1. Play with kids in real and virtual space “in the moment”, undistracted by other things like cell phones;
2. Raise awareness about what children are doing online by watching videos and playing video games with them;
3. Wait until eighth grade before giving kids cell phones;
4. Limit sharing of private information online;
5. Establish rules for kids about online media use;
6. Limit screen time; and
7. Activate parental controls.

It is all our responsibilities to keep kids safe in cyberspace. We adults must educate ourselves on the threats that are out there so we are prepared. Interested readers are encouraged to read more about this topic at the below sites:

American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) Parenting Website
(search on terms like “screen time”, “COVID-19″)

Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood
(see article on “Managing social distancing with young children”)

Center for Digital Democracy