Making Sense of Online Privacy
Carolyn JabsShould you give a child a cookie? That’s the question privacy experts have been asking ever since an expose in the Wall Street Journal revealed that many popular websites for children surreptitiously download dozens of cookies and other programs that track what kids are doing online.
Cookies have always been controversial. The companies using them insist they are benign bits of software that allow them to customize visits to their websites. That may have been true years ago when cookies were used primarily to remember passwords or the contents of a shopping cart. Today though, cookies are both more prevalent and more powerful, allowing marketers to target ads based on what a person does online. Pinpointing kids raises concerns because their defenses against marketing aren’t fully formed. Currently, the law protects children under 13 who are supposed to get adult permission before registering with any website. Common Sense Media has asked that legal protection from tracking software be extended to anyone under age 18.
A full explanation of their campaign is available at www.commonsensemedia.org/privacy. Here are the highlights: (1) Simplify privacy policies so it’s easy to understand what’s being collected and how it will be used. (2) Instead of the prevailing opt-out policies, sites aimed at minors should adopt opt-in policies so teens can make deliberate decisions about sharing information.
Unfortunately, marketers are unlikely to abandon such lucrative practices without a fight, so parents must help children think through and manage their privacy. Obviously, the conversation about cookies is part of a larger discussion about what kind of information should be kept private. Young people who have grown up with social media may feel comfortable sharing more about their lives than their elders do, but that doesn’t mean they want everyone to know everything. Parents should make sure their children have access to the very best privacy tools so they can decide for themselves whether they really want that cookie.
Carolyn Jabs, M.A., has been writing about families and the Internet for more than 15 years. She is the mother of three computer-savvy kids. Other Growing Up Online columns appear on her website www.growing-up-online.com.