[iDC] Why Parents Help Children Violate Facebook’s 13+ Rule

Mark Andrejevic markbandrejevic at gmail.com
Thu Nov 3 08:00:05 UTC 2011

Thanks for this heads up about an interesting and provocative study. What I
find disturbing about it is the fact that the question of tracking is
downplayed in your survey, even though the issue of tracking is a
*core*concern of the policy measures the study purportedly addresses.

What emerges from your findings is that most parents think that age
restrictions have to do with issues of maturity and safety which they can
address themselves (without the heavy hand of the state, thanks very much)
through awareness/monitoring of their children's activity (and state
guidelines). Only two parents in the sample mention privacy -- none, I
gather, mention tracking and targeting.

I'm willing to bet you would have gotten very different results if you had
specifically addressed the questions of behavioral tracking, data-mining,
and targeted advertising by, say, asking parents whether age restrictions
should be set on the ability of companies to collect, save, and mine
detailed data about children's behavior in order to market to them more
effectively -- which is, of course, the question at the heart of the
tracking measures you discuss. It is telling that only 9 percent of
respondents reported that their children's data were used for marketing and
advertising -- when, of course, this is the case for 100 percent of those
parents whose kids are on Facebook. Thank you for noting, in this regard,
that. "Given how few parents believe their children’s data have been used
for marketing and advertising, it is likely that: parents are either
unaware of how these techniques work or they imagine a different aspect of
marketing when they report their concerns regarding personalized marketing
and targeted advertising."

That lack of awareness is an important qualification to the following
policy-related finding that parents, "are not looking for mandatory age
restrictions as the solution to their concerns about safety and privacy."
The preferred option for protecting children identified by your
respondents: "getting parents involved in children's online activities,"
has to be understood against the background of the lack of awareness and
understanding of tracking practices. Parents who do not understand how
tracking works and don't know that it's taking place aren't going to be
able to address the issues it raises through involving themselves in their
children's activities.

I'm also not sure how to square your claim that parents are not in favor of
mandatory age restrictions with your finding that, with respect to data
collection, "57 percent would prefer restrictions, even if it means that
children in general will be banned from social network sites." (It's
suggestive that you frame this finding by noting that, "Even when the focus
is on data collection, parents are not uniformly in favor of restrictions
on what information social network sites can collect about children."
Another way to frame it would be to note that "A significant majority of
parents favor some type of age-based restriction on what information social
network sites can collect about their children"). I couldn't find a table
for that, so I'd be curious to know how that question was framed. It seems
to me to be a significant finding -- given the fact that a majority of
parents claim to be willing to sacrifice access in order to protect their
children from certain types of tracking. What if the option were that
children could have access to such sites without being tracked? My guess is
that you'd see an even larger majority of parents saying they would prefer
access with restrictions on tracking, even if that meant government

When it comes to data-collection regulations, I think it is important to
qualify your conclusion that, "Our data show that the majority of parents
think it is acceptable for their children to violate access restrictions if
they feel as though doing so furthers their children’s educational
objectives, enables family communication, or enhances their children’s
social interactions" with the observation that most of the parents who feel
this way seem to have a lack of awareness or understanding of the data
collection regimes that the legislation (which leads to access
restrictions) is meant to address. To my mind this qualification (combined
with the finding that a majority of parents do support some type of
age-based restriction on data collection) significantly weakens the case
against the regulations you target.

While I'd agree with your conclusion that "universal privacy protections"
are in order...I would also express concern about the framing and the
practical import of your article. You make a case against the consequences
of a law that is not doing what it is supposed to do (thanks largely to the
way the industry has responded), but to my mind a much less effective case
against the actual goal (of protecting children from the sophisticated
forms of manipulation being developed by data driven marketers). Nor do you
make it clear that parents are opposed to this kind of protection, at least
in the case of tracking, monitoring, and targeting. Then you use the
industry response to indict the law. We might equally critique Facebook
which chooses to respond by restricting access ineffectively (and thereby
getting to have its "underage" data too), rather than providing parents
with information and options. Couldn't Facebook easily bypass the onerous
process of parental notification and consent by providing an opt-out
provision: children who indicate that they are under a certain age would be
allowed access, but exempted from tracking. It seems that many of the
issues you raise including parental preference for restrictions on data
collection could be addressed by making the law stronger (preventing
Facebook from tracking anyone under 13) rather than scrapping it.

There is something cynical about the asymmetry in verification
requirements: there must be verifiable parental consent for those under 13
to acquiesce to tracking, but sites are not required to get verifiable
proof that those who say they are *over* 13 really are. In other words, the
workaround adopted by Web sites like Facebook is clearly structured to
encourage lying -- and thereby to encourage tracking of "underage" users.
Is it *really* complying with COPPA to allow claims to be over 13 to be
made without verification?

Could we agree that what is going on, if we step back and sum it up is that
Facebook is phenomenally popular among young people and an important part
of their social lives. However, it is also a commercial site whose economic
model relies on detailed monitoring, data mining, and target marketing. We
have, as a society, placed ourselves in a position in which an important
infrastructure for young people's self-expression and sociality relies on
submitting them to the most sophisticated techniques for surveillance and
marketing yet developed (remember when we used to worry about advertising
in the schools?). In order to placate ourselves we have developed a law
that, while purporting to protect children from -- or at least inform their
parents about -- these techniques, actually allows the tracking and
targeting to take place "unofficially."

You point out that the law is ineffective and that parents who admittedly
don't know how tracking works don't support government mandated age
requirements -- except for the significant majority of parents who support
age-based restrictions on data collection *even at the expense of loss of
access* by their children to important resources for sociality, family
communication and education (am I misreading this finding? -- it seems like
it runs counter to much of your argument). If the goal is universal privacy
protection, I'm not sure why it wouldn't make more sense to provide
workable protection for groups that have historically been easier to shield
from the most aggressive forms of marketing and work from there, rather
than to say the law should be scrapped because industry didn't respond to
it appropriately and parents don't seem to want age-based restrictions
(except for the majority who think they are appropriate when it comes to
data collection). Indeed, the tone of the article, with its framing of
regulation as an impingement upon personal freedom and parental
authority undermines the concluding gesture toward universal -- and thus
stronger -- privacy protections -- unless these end up being a matter of
industry self-regulation. That would certainly fit well with the industry
agenda, but I'm not sure it accurately reflects public preference (I know,
I know, get funding for my own study...actually, there's one underway).

If you're submitting this paper to the FTC in this form, I'd certainly be
interested in addressing the arguments you make here in public comments to
the FTC.
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