COPPA, part two: New study suggests a majority of kids are on Facebook… by age 12

A newly published study quantifies some of the fears I expressed earlier this year in a post about the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act [COPPA].

The title lays out the problem: “Why parents help their children lie to Facebook about age: Unintended consequences of the ‘Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act’.” It’s by Danah Boyd, Eszter Hargittai, Jason Schultz, and John Palfrey and appears in First Monday, a peer-reviewed Internet journal from the University of Illinois-Chicago.

The study reports the results of a survey of 1,007 U.S. parents, age 26 and over, who have children between 10 and 14, and who do not work in the software industry. The survey found that 55 percent of those children had Facebook accounts by age 12.

This is in violation of Facebook’s COPPA-inspired Terms of Service, which prohibit anyone under age 13 from creating an account. COPPA makes it illegal for Web publishers to knowingly collect personally identifiable information from children under age 13. But that’s not what today’s kids want, I wrote in September:

“By effectively closing the social Web to preteens, COPPA has had the unintended consequence instead of simply encouraging kids to break the rules of the websites and services they wish to use – and by extension flouting the law’s purpose.”

The survey confirms that not only are children violating the spirit of COPPA by lying to register for online social networks, it suggests that the majority of children might be breaking the spirit of the law.

As I wrote before, what’s the point of keeping this element of a law that so many people are consciously breaking?

Remember, it’s the parents who are reporting their children’s Facebook activity in this survey, so presumably there might be some children who’ve registered for Facebook on the sly, too. The study survey not only found that the parents were aware of their children’s Facebook accounts, in the majority of cases they actually helped their children set up the accounts.

Nearly four out of five parents surveys said that there were situations where they would allow their children to create an account on an online service, knowing that their children were younger that the service’s age limit. Here’s the breakdown of why they would, according to the survey: (Respondents could select multiple reasons.)

Yes, for educational or school related purposes – 54%
Yes, but only under supervision – 50%
Yes, to communicate other family members – 48%
Yes, to communicate with me – 47%
Yes, to communicate with friends – 22%
Yes, because their classmates use the service – 9%

Only 22 percent of parents said that they would never knowingly allow their children to register for an online service in violation of the site’s age rules, according to the survey.

The data suggests that parents want to remain a strong influence, if not the focus, of their children’s online social network, with half the parents willing to approve their children’s participation under supervision and a near-majority wanting their children on Facebook in order to communicate with them and to enable the children to communicate with other family members.

The study’s authors suggested that parents aren’t seeing COPPA-inspired terms of service as legal requirements, but as suggestions – ones that can be overruled by their own parental authority. COPPA actually tried to give parents that authority, but the offline verification procedures that the law allowed are so burdensome for online publishers to support that most of them have decided simply not to allow registrations from kids under 13.

But those restrictions are there. And when parents allow their children to break those rules, they are, unfortunately, showing their children that it’s okay to break the rules of a community in order to get something (such as access) from that community. Ultimately, that’s not the healthy way to engage that a law such as COPPA should be encouraging.

COPPA does some great things for kids, helping to keep the Internet from becoming a commercial free-for-all, where Big Business hunts kids’ money and data freely. But why should children be the only ones to have their personal information and identity so well shielded by default?

The authors agree. They write:

“Our data suggest that … relying on age–based models is producing unintended consequences that undermine COPPA’s goals. In response, we propose that policy–makers shift away from privacy regulation models that are based on age or other demographic categories and, instead, develop universal privacy protections for online users.”

That ought to be the issue. Let’s ditch the parts of COPPA that parents don’t want – and don’t abide by – in favor of regulations that can better protect adults as well as kids from having their personal information and identities treated and traded as a business assets without their consent.

Kids want to engage. So do their parents. And parents want a role in helping teach their children how to engage socially online. Let’s let them do this – legally.

COPPA: What happens when a generation ignores a law?

Update, Sept. 21: This post has been edited since it first appeared.

The United States Federal Trade Commission is seeking public comment on amendments to its rule implementing the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act [COPPA]. While, as a website publisher and a parent, I’d love to see some changes to COPPA, the FTC’s proposals don’t come close to level of reform this law needs.

If you’re not connected with the legal side of your news website, here’s a reminder about what COPPA is, from the FTC:

The Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA) requires that operators of websites or online services directed to children under 13, or those that have actual knowledge that they are collecting personal information from children under 13, obtain verifiable consent from parents before collecting, using, or disclosing such information from children. The FTC’s Rule implementing the COPPA statute became effective in 2000.

Under FTC’s current rules for COPPA, website publishers must get offline consent from a parent before collecting any personal identification information from a visitor under age 13. Getting offline consent, such as a written or faxed letter, then merging it with an online record, has proven to be such a hassle that most websites now simple bar registration to anyone under age 13. That’s been the policy at my websites ever since COPPA went into effect, and it’s the policy at major social media sites such as Facebook.

The proposed amendments to the FTC’s COPPA rule are intended to make obtaining parental consent easier. But some of the FTC’s proposed “solutions” – including a live videoconference with a parent – won’t convince any website publishers to open registration to preteens. Like the old requirements, they’re just too labor-intensive for the highly automated world of online publishing.

As a parent, I understand the intention behind COPPA. Many parents don’t want their kids wandering the Internet unsupervised. But by effectively closing the social Web to preteens, COPPA has had the unintended consequence instead of simply encouraging kids to break the rules of the websites and services they wish to use – and by extension flouting the law’s purpose.

Back in 1998, when COPPA was passed by Congress, online communication wasn’t an essential part of daily life for most people. Over the past 13 years, though, we’ve raised a digital generation. Text messaging, apps and Facebook chatting have supplanted passed notes and phone calls as the preferred means of communication for millions of young people. I can’t remember the last time my teen daughter used her cell phone to make an actual call. (She’s had the phone for over a year and has yet to set up voicemail. I don’t think she even knows she could do that.) My son loves making movies, and talked me into creating a YouTube channel and Facebook fan page on my accounts so he could share his videos, to get around the fact that he couldn’t do so legally himself. Most kids wouldn’t bother with that step. They’d just pretend to be over 13 and set up the accounts themselves – leaving them without the data-tracking protections that COPPA’s designed to provide kids of their age.

Digital communication doesn’t just happen at age 13. Kids are itching to connect online as soon as they get their hands on a connected device. And with tablets such as the iPad enabling toddlers to function online, COPPA’s age limit is a full decade too late for some kids.

And that is helping to make COPPA the most-violated law since the speed limit and the drinking age.

FTC can change its rules as it wants. But if COPPA continues to encourage publishers to close digital connectivity to preteens, today’s digital generation will continue to lie about their ages to get around that legal roadblock. And that digital generation’s first lesson in digital literacy will continue to be: To connect with the world around you, you first must break the rules and flout the law.

That bothers me, not just as a parent, but as a citizen. Keeping laws on the books that the majority of people routinely violate (or laws that are rarely or inconsistently enforced) robs the law – as an institution – of its credibility. I don’t believe that we collectively should make a policy that encourages our children to break rules and ignore the law in order to participate fully in their society. If we want to protect preteens’ identity online – and I believe that we should – our laws should focus on that, instead of creating parental consent procedures so burdensome that they force publishers into the impossible task of trying to keep kids offline.

We might want to pretend that we can control children, but the fact remains that kids are their own beings. Short of requiring retina scans to log online (oh, heavens, I shouldn’t even suggest that in jest), we can’t firewall preteens from the Internet. So let’s quit pretending that we can, or even, should.

The FTC can’t fix COPPA on its own. We need Congress to step in and revise the law. Perhaps we should prohibit publishers and developers from referencing minors with their real names. Or, even better, we could prohibit direct unsolicited marketing to any minor, too – building on COPPA’s data protection and anti-tracking measures. But I’d rather see the FTC start a discussion on a new effort to help kids engage online in a positive manner than limiting the discussion to patching this broken aspect of COPPA.

FCC report details fall of state, local news but offers wrong solution

Earlier this month, the Federal Communications Commission issued a report on the state of journalism in the technological age. The year-long study is based on interviews with 600 journalists, scholars and industry leaders. Among its many findings is that newsrooms are no longer equipped to cover local and state governments.

The report blames the shrinking of the newsroom for many of the problems facing journalism. The FCC study showed that newspapers and TV news networks across the nation have halved the staff they had in the 1980s. And those reporters are now forced to produce in “the hamster wheel,” where reporters must rush to tell the news without time or resources to dig deeper. According to the FCC, reporters “have less time to discover the stories lurking in the shadows or to unearth the information that powerful institutions want to conceal.”

One of the recommendations made by the FCC is a state-based version of C-SPAN. This STATE-SPAN would provide wall-to-wall coverage of local government and allow the public to hear the debates and see the votes coming from their state capitols. Although this would increase access, it remains to be seen if the public is interested in this. For STATE-SPAN, who would explain why a state or local legislative action matters? Veteran journalists know that most major decisions are made behind the scenes, long before an issue comes before a council or legislature.

The other big question is who would fund this venture? The cable television industry funds C-SPAN as a public service, but who could step up to provide such access in all fifty states?

Instead of beginning a risky venture like STATE-SPAN or allowing government to intervene in the journalism business, the FCC should look at new journalism initiatives that are covering local and state government effectively. Many of these organizations are nonprofit organizations operating solely online but breaking news in the mainstream media.

Online, nonprofit journalism organizations are filling a void that traditional news media no longer can. Although news organization startups are increasing, many of these nonprofits have been around for decades and are focusing on local stories. Some of the nonprofit journalism organizations serve as watchdogs for government, Wall Street and the media itself. Some serve as explanatory journalists, who have the space and time to elucidate the complex details of issues that newspapers and television cannot. But regardless of their mission, they are providing a desperately needed service to the American people.

As further proof of the strength in online journalism organizations, numerous straight-shooting, frustrated journalists are leaving traditional newsrooms and joining these online newsrooms. These organizations provide journalists the opportunity to investigate and reemerge as the news beat reporters of yesteryear. In the last year alone, Howard Kurtz, Peter Goodman, Jim VandeHei, and Richard Johnson have voluntarily exited the legacy media to join the online news arena.

The FCC is correct on many of the points made in their report. Journalism is struggling. State and local news will disappear unless more news organizations step up and begin covering that beat. We hope more organizations hear the urgent calling of this FCC report and begin producing state and local news content that will keep voters informed.

Jason Stverak is the President of the Franklin Center for Government and Public Integrity, which provides investigative reporters and non-profit organizations at the state and local level with training, expertise, and technical support. For more information on the Franklin Center please visit The Franklin Center has two national news websites. To check out the investigative news site please visit To get the latest state capitol news please visit