About the author: Stacey Steinberg is the director of the University of Florida Levin College of Law’s Center on Children and Families, where she also serves as the supervising attorney for the Gator TeamChild Juvenile Law Clinic. She is the author of Growing Up Shared: How Parents Can Share Smarter on Social Media and What You Can Do to Keep Your Family Safe in a No-Privacy World.
I am a parent and at first glance the child-safety protections
just announced looked like a welcome new tool to help me keep my kids safe online. I am also a current attorney in dependency court and a former child abuse prosecutor, so I recognize how valuable such tools can be in preventing pedophiles from hurting children.
I’ve advocated for better online protections for kids for years, but this approach raises a red flag for me. I’m concerned this step toward better surveillance may also pose significant privacy risks given the technology’s potential use for other forms of monitoring.
Parents like me are the first generation to raise children who are immersed in social media, sharing their every moment from birth forward online. In a world where screens and cameras are always on, it is challenging for parents to strike a balance between access to social, privacy, and protection. They need more help.
There are a few laws that protect children’s privacy online, such as the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act, known as COPPA. But COPPA only protects kids under age 13 and only on select platforms. Significantly, it doesn’t give parents clear, independent grounds to challenge unauthorized data collection in court.
This may soon change. Rep. Kathy Castor, D-Fla., has introduced legislation to update and expand COPPA; the bill includes elements of the protections adopted by the U.K. effective in September. Sens. Edward J. Markey, D-Mass., and Bill Cassidy, R-La., also have proposed updates to COPPA.
The pandemic has brought our reliance on technology home in a way none of us could have anticipated. As our children spent more time online, technology’s vulnerabilities were also more exposed for many of us. I shuddered as my kids relied more and more on their iPads to stay in touch with family and friends, anxious that I hadn’t done enough to make being online safe for them.
When I first began researching children’s online privacy, I thought I would find clear answers to my questions about how to best balance the power of online engagement with the risks posed to our kids. But technology continues to evolve—and so do the questions.
This summer, I have approached many proposed privacy updates by TikTok, Google, and YouTube and new apps, such as Instagram Youth, with great skepticism. I watched with respect but also jealousy as the international community took a huge step forward in recognizing the importance of children’s rights in the digital world—a move taken without the United States, which is the only member country that is not part of the U.N.’s Convention on the Rights of the Child.
As we move into fall, I am more optimistic. Rep. Castor’s legislation offers comprehensive protections for children. And perhaps most important, children’s privacy has become a “hot topic.”
We are debating who is responsible for protecting children’s privacy and how children can be kept safe online; we are grappling with how much of our children’s privacy we are willing to give up when they go online.
I have hope that, with a rapid influx of ideas and attention from lawmakers, technology companies, researchers, parents, and children, too, a safer online world is about to be a reality.
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