Kids and Cookies: Making Sense of Online Privacy
Growing Up Online
School Kids and Tweens/Teens – could be in subcategory of development? activities
Should you give a child a cookie? Or let a stranger give your child a cookie? That's the question privacy experts have been asking ever since an exposé in The Wall Street Journal revealed that many popular websites for children surreptitiously download dozens of cookies and other tiny programs that track what kids are doing online.
Cookies have always been controversial. The companies that use them insist they are benign bits of software that allow them to customize visits to their websites. That may have been true years ago when cookies were used primarily to remember passwords or the contents of a shopping cart.
Today, cookies are both more prevalent and more powerful, allowing marketers to target ads based on what a person does online. For adults, this might be inconsequential or even helpful. If you're researching a new car, you may be OK about seeing ads for comparable models. Yet even adults often feel uneasy about customized advertising related to personal issues such as weight loss or fertility.
Targeting kids raises even more concerns because their defenses against marketing aren't fully formed.
The current law protects children younger than 13 who are supposed to get adult permission before registering with any website. Now Common Sense Media has asked that legal protection from tracking software be extended to anyone under 18. A full explanation of the campaign is available at www.commonsensemedia.org/privacy, but the highlights are: Simplify privacy policies so it's easy to understand what's being collected and how it will be used. Change the prevailing opt-out policies to opt-in policies for websites aimed at minors so teens can make deliberate decisions about sharing information.
Those ideas sound like common sense. Unfortunately, marketers are unlikely to abandon such lucrative practices without a fight, so parents must help children think through and manage their privacy.
Danah Boyd, a researcher at Harvard's Berkman Center for Internet and Society, suggests online privacy is easier to understand if parents differentiate between PII (personally identifying information) and PEI (personally embarrassing information). To get a grip on cookies and other tracking software, parents may also want to add PBI (personal behavior information) to that list. Consider the following issues:
Personally identifiable information – This is the information that allows someone else to identify — and locate — your child. In addition to name, address and phone number, it may include the name of your child's school or travel sports team. Children who aren't mature enough for social media should have a simple rule about PII. Don't give it out online without permission.
The law requires websites serving kids under 13 to get parental permission before a child registers. Teach your children to take the law seriously. In particular, they should get approval to register on a website, participate in a contest or download any kind of free program.
Personally embarrassing information – Once a child joins a social network, sharing some PII is inevitable, though teens should use every available privacy setting on sites like Facebook. At this age, focus discussions on PEI, the kind of information that will make your child — or you — cringe if it falls into the wrong hands.
Although comfort levels vary, young people have actually become quite savvy about what should and shouldn't be shared in social networks. At the same time, parents have a role, especially with newbies. Talk often about how information that's shared online can take on a life of its own because other people can replicate, distribute and search for it. Google your child so he or she can see what's leaking through.
Personal behavior information – Doing anything online leaves clues about personal interests. Marketers are eager to have this information, particularly about young people who haven't yet made firm commitments to products. In fact, the opportunity to collect information about prospective customers is part of what makes so much of the Web "free." Instead of paying for what a website offers with money, people "pay" by offering bits of information about themselves.
If a young person understands this, he or she can make informed decisions about when to share information. For example, a teen searching for college information may want to see ads from similar schools. A child who likes a particular kind of movie, book, music or video game may be eager to know about new releases.
The conversation about cookies is part of a larger discussion about what kind of information should be kept private. Young people who have grown up with social media may feel comfortable sharing more about their lives than their elders do, but that doesn't mean they want everyone to know everything. If, as Boyd observes, privacy means having control over who knows what, parents will want to be sure their children have access to the very best privacy tools so they can decide for themselves whether they really want that cookie.
Carolyn Jabs has been writing about families and the Internet for more than 15 years. She is the mother of three computer-savvy kids.