Can you protect your kids online?

The concept of regulation, especially when modified by the word “government,” often produces a knee jerk reaction among many who feel that if the government is involved, things can only end badly.

About this time last year, I wrote about the well-meaning but impossibly overmatched Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA) passed in 1998, at a time when the internet did not even bear a passing resemblance to today’s internet.  [Click here to read that post.] The focus of that post was largely about parents and other authority figures encouraging kids to lie to get around Terms of Service agreements. Today, the FTC is attempting to strengthen COPPA in  a futile attempt to deal with data mining and behavioral targeting.

Naturally, this effort to redress the shortcomings of a law passed in the internet Stone Age is being met with opposition. I think it’s always useful to examine exactly WHO is against any kind of regulatory change as a good first step towards parsing whether that change is good or bad.

In this case, the charges of “get government off my back” are coming from the likes of Apple, Facebook, Google, Microsoft and twitter, not to mention television networks, app platforms and advertising trade groups.

I am not making any earth-shattering observation when I say that kids, especially pre-teens and teenagers, do not spend a lot of time thinking about the long-term consequences of online behavior. (Heck, neither do a lot of adults.) An innocent upload of a picture so they can see themselves on their computer screen next to a Disney character or battling robots inside of an app seems, to them, like no big deal.

Businesses survive by cultivating new customers, and with kids flocking to the internet in droves, they go to where the prospects are. I’m not convinced that any regulation, no matter how well-intentioned, can stanch the flow of data mining and behavioral targeting. The internet did not kill privacy, as fashionable as it is sometimes to take that position.

The only real alternative is to discuss internet safety and internet smarts with your kids. Many parents feel ill-equipped to do so because they themselves feel like they are unaware of how best to act online. The fact is, being online is not that much different than being out in the world, and you should govern yourself accordingly. It is neither reasonable nor feasible to opt out of the internet, just like you cannot opt our of society in general. A little common sense will always carry the day.

And keep an eye on who is for and who is against some of these things. That ought to scare you more than the possibility of your kid being served an advertisement for chocolate covered Doritos.

What do you think? Can anything really be done to protect kids from being marketed to and having their data collected? Leave a comment in the comments section.