"Youth are much savvier about their online privacy than most adults give them credit for," says Rey Junco, a faculty associate at the Berkman Center for Internet and Society. In the final installment of Tell Me More's series Social Me, Junco tells NPR's Michel Martin that research into teenagers' online behavior on sites like Facebook show that they adjust privacy settings and behave in ways that prove "they're very aware of privacy issues."
But that's not to say kids don't need further protection. Junco explains that the Children's Online Privacy Protection Act, or COPPA, was set up to keep their information private. And it has recently been revised to keep up with the changing technologies available to children.
Before the rules were updated, Junco explains, developers of kids' applications were collecting information without any warning. They used "basically a loophole in COPPA that didn't cover a new technology such as mobile devices," Junco says. He points out that mobile technologies are not new to consumers, but "because COPPA has been around for so long," it still needs to catch up with all the technology available, and to make provisions for what is on the way.
These days, anyone who goes online must be aware that their personal information and search histories can be tracked. There are tools for your browser that can block this monitoring, but the challenge is today's Internet business model. Even websites that are free to access make money, because data is "harvested and used for advertising." Junco explains that this is done "in ways that we would consider an unacceptable privacy breach for our children."
Junco says COPPA is working on ensuring that kids are safe online, but there's still a ways to go. "I don't think that there are going to be static rules that are going to hold for very long periods of time, given the rapid advances in technology that we see," Junco says. "But I think it's important to have a process by which the [Federal Trade Commission] can continually make and enforce updates."
CELESTE HEADLEE, HOST:
We return now to TELL ME MORE's Social Me series, looking at how young people are interacting online. Earlier this week, we heard about how kids could benefit from developing their online identities and how educators can use data about social media to help shape better lessons.
But, today, we're going to explore a potential downside of social media for children and ask whether digital privacy protection is keeping up with the growth of technology. Rey Junco is a faculty associate at Harvard's Berkman Center for Internet and Society. Earlier, he joined Michel Martin to discuss the issue.
MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
Rey, welcome back. Thanks for joining us once again.
REY JUNCO: Hi, Michel. Awesome to be here.
MARTIN: Rey, you know, often, if you ever log on to a site that's meant for kids or if you log on to a game or you try to download a game or something that's meant for kids, you'll see that it'll say, well, are you 13 or older? Do you have your parent's permission? Is that all because of the Children's Online Protection Act, or COPA? Is that what that's all about?
JUNCO: Yes. That's correct. That's from COPA.
MARTIN: Could you just briefly give us an idea of what kinds of protections children are supposed to have online now? And I understand that they recently changed, but just tell us what kinds of protections, sort of, in general terms, kids are supposed to have when they go online.
JUNCO: In general, the idea behind COPA was to protect children online and to keep their information private, to keep bad actors from getting their information and to keep them from being marketed to in ways that are hyper-charged, basically, by technology.
MARTIN: You know, one of the things that I think a lot of privacy advocates have talked about is that, you know, Americans are kind of funny when it comes to privacy. On the one hand, Americans are very adamant about their right to privacy. On the other hand, people routinely give away all kinds of information, like about how much money they make, about their - you know, their race, what they're going to buy, their, sort of, shopping habits.
Do you find that people are more vigilant when it comes to their kids or are they still kind of lax in actually giving away information, even if they don't necessarily want people to have it?
JUNCO: You know, I think there is an interesting catch 22 here, just like you've identified, that there's research - for instance, there was a recent Pew Internet and American Life Project Berkman Center survey of parents who have teenagers and 81 percent of the parents of teens who go online say they are concerned about how much information advertisers can learn about their child's online behavior. Sixty-nine percent of parents of online teens are concerned about how their child's online activity might affect their future academic or employment opportunities.
Yet, one of the reasons why the changes occurred in COPA was because there was all of this other data collection that was happening that most people weren't really attuned to. And I think that was one of the big stories when we talked about this that last time, was that people didn't really get that these apps were tracking kids in these ways.
MARTIN: I thought you had some research on this point, about how kids themselves view online privacy.
JUNCO: Well, youth are much savvier about their online privacy than most adults give them credit for. So research on their online behavior shows that they adjust privacy settings and behave in ways that show that they're very aware of privacy issues. But the research is mostly conducted on teenagers and not on younger children, and it's mostly conducted on teenagers using specific sites, like Facebook and MySpace. And some of the things that happen with other kinds of tracking are well beyond typical privacy concerns of parents, but also of youth.
MARTIN: What advice do you have for parents and caregivers going forward and teens themselves, for that matter, who are listening to this conversation? And, you know, you want to go online. You want to experience what's out there, but you don't necessarily want your personal information being sort of tracked forever. Is there anything you should be particularly aware of? Is there really anything you can do?
JUNCO: One of my favorite plug-ins for my browser is Do Not Track Plus, which sits in your browser and doesn't allow you to be tracked across websites and blocks these queries about your personal information and about what sites you're visiting and about your behavior in order to serve up different kinds of advertisement to you.
MARTIN: So, looking ahead, are there other policy changes that you would like to see made to address this?
JUNCO: Well, the problem with the current rules is that they can't foresee all of the applications right now, plus they can't foresee all of the applications in the future. So, for me, it's more of a process issue because, before the rules were updated, we saw that developers for apps for kids were collecting information without providing notice. They used a - you know, basically, a loophole in COPA that didn't cover a new technology, such as mobile devices. And I use, "new," in air quotes because, I mean, mobile technologies obviously aren't new to us, but they're new to COPA because COPA's been around for so long.
So part of the problem is that the current models of making money online involves a system by which a website is touted as free, but then data is harvested and used for advertising in ways that we would consider an unacceptable privacy breach for our children. I would consider them an unacceptable privacy breach for all of us. But such a popular business model doesn't really mesh well with protecting privacy, so I don't think that there are going to be static rules that are going to hold for very long periods of time, given the rapid advances in technology that we see, but I think it's important to have a process by which the FTC can continually make and enforce updates.
MARTIN: Before we let you go, Rey, over the course of the last days, as we've said, we've talked a couple of things. We've talked about the online identities question. I mean, you know, the idea of anonymity online has gotten a really bad rap, particularly when it comes to kids, and you've pointed out how that can actually be a positive thing, in some ways.
You've talked about the fact that, you know, online use can be constructive. It can help people figure out how kids can learn better if they use that information, you know, properly. And, today, of course, we talked about, you know, the privacy question.
When you think, sort of, overall, about the way our young people are interacting with technology, with the Internet, are you mostly excited or are you fearful in some ways?
JUNCO: Well, I'm actually optimistic about it. I'm often told that I'm too optimistic, which is kind of funny because I don't really consider myself an optimist. I consider myself a realist and, sometimes, at least to me, that comes off as being pretty negative about the future. But I think that these technologies really hold such promise for education, for interpersonal interactions, for exploring things about ourselves, our identities, our psychological makeup that we've never been able to do before with other kinds of tools.
And I think it allows us for some really neat and expansive ways to grow and develop and so I'm talking about youth here, but I'm also talking about adults, as well, and I think I'm really optimistic about it.
MARTIN: Rey Junco is a faculty associate at the Harvard Berkman Center for Internet and Society. He joined us from WPSU at Penn State University.
Thank you so much for joining us.
JUNCO: Thanks a lot, Michel.
MARTIN: If you missed any of our previous conversations in our Social Me series, please go to our website and check it out. Go to NPR.org, click on the Programs tab and then on TELL ME MORE. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.