Many parents help their kids lie to get on facebook. No big deal, right?

In the past couple of weeks, two very rich studies focusing on the online behavior of young people have been released. One of them is entitled “Why parents help their children lie to Facebook about age,” co-authored by four of the leading thinkers on online privacy, access and the roles kids play on the internet.

 

The other is from the Pew Internet and American Life Project and is entitled “Teens, kindness and cruelty on social network sites.”

I want to focus a bit more on the first study first, and leave the second study for another blog post. I would urge you to click on both links and peruse each of them, as they are rich in substance and fact.

 

Children under 13 are supposedly protected by COPPA (Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act) a Clinton-era law passed in 1998 meant to keep marketers from targeting or collecting information about kids. The law went into effect in 2000, when the internet was a very different place before the explosion of social networking sites, Skype or even GMail. Not that anyone has probably read them, but all of these services have lengthy terms of service agreements which, among lots of other things, are supposed to prevent kids from signing up for them if they’re under 13.

 

In reality what is happening is the very thing that COPPA was meant to prevent: kids are signing up for facebook and other services in droves, very often with their parents’ consent and, in many cases, their explicit help. Many parents are either unaware of COPPA or, worse yet, think that the 13-year old ban is more of a guideline and not a hard and fast regulation. A typical parental response to helping their kids get around the ban goes something like, “My child is mature enough to handle it.” To a large degree, parents feel that they should be the ones to decide how their kids participate online.

 

Fair enough. But the real takeaway from the report for me was the one I suspect is doing the most long-term damage. When parents help their kids get around these restrictions, they are normalizing lying. As danah boyd, one of the authors of the study, recently revealed on NPR’s On the Media, “I was aghast to watch how often law enforcement comes in during assemblies and tells kids that in order to be safe online, they should actually lie about their location. So kids are hearing messages all around them that lying is both the way to get access and the way to be safe online.”

 

Clearly the COPPA mandated requirements are inadequate for today’s online landscape. So, then, what is the solution to keeping kids from being marketed to or otherwise tracked online by advertisers or others? What are some of the consequences to lying either to get online or lying once you’re already there?

 

boyd further notes that “…a huge number of kids actually say they’re from Afghanistan or Zimbabwe, which are the countries alphabetically at the top and the bottom of the possible countries you could be from.” It’s kind of a funny anecdote, but one that, I think,  has far-reaching implications.

 

What do you think of all this? Have you helped your kids circumvent any ToS agreements like the ones on Facebook, GMail or Skype? Is it really no big deal? Please leave a comment in the comments section. I’m curious to hear what you have to say.

facebook and the losing battle over privacy

So facebook doesn’t seem to care about your privacy. Until they do. Or, do they? Kind of hard to tell. The people who run the service that was pitched to all of us a few years back as a semi-private club where we would have control of who saw our photos, status updates and hackneyed inspirational quotes have now, for the fourth or fifth time, moved the goal posts on what constitutes “privacy.”

Finally, on May 26, facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg was forced to address the frenzy whipped up online and off over what many perceived as a sneaky attempt to manipulate people’s information. Past attempts have stirred up a storm among the digerati and have been mostly confined to blog posts and tweets. This time, however, it landed on the front page of the New York Times which for an internet business can only mean two things: you have stopped being cool because the stodgy Times found out about you OR because you did something bad/stupid/illegal or some combination of the three.

This is not the first time they have done this, nor the first time I have written about it. But for some reason, THIS time it is really freaking people out, and not just the techie geekerati. So what is at the heart of the problem, and what can be done?

facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg firmly believes two things:  1)  the web is making us all more open and that privacy is an illusion and 2) facebook is on a mission to transform they way we all interact with the web. Facebook wants to be the center of our digital lives, the starting point of our engagement with the internet. facebook believes that “By making the world more open and connected, we’re expanding understanding between people and making the world a more empathetic place.” Oh, brother.

The hue and cry was so intense about their ham-handed changes, that Zuckerberg was forced to acknowledge their mistakes and offer up different settings options for users. The previous privacy settings had 50 pages of clicking and over 170 possible permutations. Who the hell is going to go to all that trouble? That, of course, is EXACTLY what they were counting on- that few of us would.

So, is facebook evil, stupid or crazy like a fox? The truth is, there is not as much of a business for them in only being a place for you to upload your photos and provide status updates as there is in collecting massive amounts of data about their users which can then be used to earn advertising income by more effectively targeting those ads based on your online activities and expressed interests.

If you believe their  numbers, facebook has over 400 million active users, two thirds of whom live outside of the US, but the privacy features are explained in ENGLISH ONLY. So many users have invested so much of themselves (ourselves) into the service that simply quitting facebook is not really a viable option. And even if we did, what would become of all those pictures, videos, intellectual ramblings, etc.? facebook would tell you that they are simply reflecting the change in people’s attitudes about privacy. I have seen no evidence of that. Rather, I would suggest that they are forcing change in order to be able to better target advertising and make more money. The truth is, given the choice, human beings typically opt for convenience over privacy.

(Side note: the implication here is that young people don’t care about their privacy. Zuckerberg himself is only 26, and that may very well be his personal ethos. Yet a Pew Reserch Center study released on May 26, 2010 about reputation management and social media found that 71% of social network users aged 18-29 have changed their privacy setting on their profile to limit what they share with others online. “Reputation management has now become a defining feature of online life for many internet users, especially the young.” Here’s a link to the survey.)

For those who were freaked out by this latest breach, I think the main reason is that  our privacy has been under assault from so many quarters, and that is a real concern for many of us. From illegal wire tapping and circumvention of FISA to self-inflicted revelations in public fora, many of us face a constant push-pull over how much to reveal and the harm it may inflict. When I say “harm,” I don’t necessarily mean physical harm, although there are many heartbreaking stories of physical harm. It could be embarrassment, getting caught in a lie, or just forgetting that you are sometimes speaking to a broader audience. But these missteps feel manageable because we realize that WE were the ones that made a mistake by revealing too much. It’s quite a different, and creepy, feeling when someone ELSE reveals our personal information without our informed consent. Betrayal is tough to come back from. Unless you’re facebook and no one seems to give a damn.

For all intents and purposes, facebook has no competition and, as danah boyd points out, the deeper a relationship, the higher the cost of ending it. So what can be done? Not much, I’m afraid. Stay on top of the changes (because this WILL happen again. And again.), and remain ever mindful of what your goals and objectives are when you join an online club.

As always, I would love to hear your comments.

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