Staff Columnist

What do social media companies know about your children?

Many apps and websites target young people

The Cedar Rapids Public Library has 80 tablets geared towards children to be loaned out through the Tablets4Tots program and 50 tablets for adults through the Tablets2Go program. Photographed Tuesday, Feb. 25, 2014, in southeast Cedar Rapids, Iowa. (Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette-KCRG)
The Cedar Rapids Public Library has 80 tablets geared towards children to be loaned out through the Tablets4Tots program and 50 tablets for adults through the Tablets2Go program. Photographed Tuesday, Feb. 25, 2014, in southeast Cedar Rapids, Iowa. (Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette-KCRG)

Tech companies are coming for your children’s private information, and there is little government regulations can do to stop them.

American children today are more plugged-in than ever before. The incredible affordability of new gadgets — tablets commonly sell for less than $50, and there are many laptops available for less than $200 — mean more screens are easily accessible for millions of families with small children. That may offer education and entertainment benefits, but also many perils.

Preschoolers spend an average of more than four hours per day looking at screens, according to the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood. Years of research point to a wide range of risks associated with too much screen time for both children and adults. Advocates say putting devices in children’s’ hands may stunt language acquisition in toddlers, and reinforce unhealthy social and emotional habits among adolescents, for example. Half of American teenagers said they feel “addicted” to their mobile devices in a 2016 survey conducted by Common Sense Media, a tech watchdog group.

What has not received nearly as much attention until recently is the huge amounts of personal data tech companies can collect from children. That issue came to the forefront this year, with Facebook promoting its new Messenger Kids app, a supposedly kid-friendly version of its popular instant messaging service.

Children need permission from a parent with a real Facebook account to access the app, and Facebook leaders insist data gathered will not be used for advertising. But that doesn’t mean children’s personal data isn’t stored. Messenger Kids allows the social media giant to start a what could be a lifelong relationship with young consumers.

If Facebook’s data collection of adult users is any indication, parents should be troubled. My own Facebook data file includes thousands of data points, including the content of my messages, my shopping habits and my location every time I have accessed the website or mobile app.

A group of parenting and consumer advocacy groups wrote a letter to Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg this year, asking the company to halt the Messenger Kids project. They wrote that children “do not have a fully developed understanding of privacy, including what’s appropriate to share with others and who has access to their conversations, pictures, and videos.”

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This month, two U.S. senators sent a letter to the Federal Trade Commission calling for an investigation into children’s apps. Sens. Ed Markey and Richard Blumenthal, both Democrats, are concerned apps may be violating the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act, a 1998 law meant to heavily restrict tech companies’ interactions with children under the age of 13.

As any 12-year-old can probably tell you, laws governing their internet use are easy to sidestep. I remember friends on my elementary school playground nearly 20 years ago recounting to me how easy it was to lie about your age in order to start a Neopets account.

No government regulation can effectively limit companies from collecting children’s data. Instead, parents must be their own regulators.

l Comments: (319) 339-3156; adam.sullivan@thegazette.com

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