By Alice Williams

It’s no secret—using the internet can be risky business. Beyond Amazon Prime fueling your impulsive buys or Instagram sucking you in for hours, the internet can be dangerous for more than just your time or your wallet—especially for kids.

A seemingly harmless game of Fortnite or simply scrolling through the Snapchat Discover screen can put your child’s privacy at risk.

Tech companies collect everything from names and addresses to genders and locations. This can lead to identity theft, child predators, and targeted advertising. And sadly, no adult—or child—is immune from data dangers.

The Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA) works to prevent companies from illegally acquiring personal info from unsuspecting youngsters without parental consent. The act requires apps, internet services, and websites that target children under thirteen to get parental consent before collecting any personal data. It also prohibits companies from releasing or sharing your kiddo’s private information.

The problem? The Federal Trade Commission (FTC), who enforces COPPA, can’t keep up with tech companies.

Even companies that don’t target kids are including more and more kid-friendly content to appeal to its younger crowds—kind of like how YouTube has an entire lineup of children’s shows and cartoons despite the platform being designed for adults (in addition to the YouTube Kids platform). Since sites like YouTube don’t technically market to kids, they can still collect personal information from them without parental consent.

What does COPPA cover?

The same way you’ll start seeing ads for cars after you surfed the web for some new wheels, companies can target kids if they know basic information like their gender or birthday.

Under COPPA, companies must adhere to the following rules:

  1. Explicitly state when they’re collecting personal information from children.
  2. Get a thumbs up from parents before collecting personal information.
  3. Allow parents to review the personal information they share.
  4. Protect each child’s personal information by not sharing or distributing any info to third parties.
  5. Offer a way for parents to revoke and delete personal information.
  6. Prohibit games or sites from requiring email addresses or phone numbers to access future levels.

If a company fails to abide by COPPA the FTC can give them a hefty fine and take them to court.

So, is the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act effective?

Sort of.

COPPA applies only to companies that specifically target children under 13 years old. Because websites, apps, and video games are multiplying at a rapid pace, the FTC is struggling to keep up.

At the time COPPA came into law, tech titans like Twitter, Instagram, and Snapchat weren’t titans yet. Apps that have kid-friendly content but weren’t created specifically with kids in mind fall through the cracks and get away with collecting information without parental consent. Even video games and tech toys can fly under the radar.

What’s next?

Moving forward, here are some COPPA amendments lawmakers on both sides of the aisle are proposing:

  1. Monitor and enforce COPPA on sites, games, and technologies that don’t explicitly target children.
  2. Extend the age of children from thirteen and younger to fifteen and younger.
  3. Solve for future problems with up-and-coming technologies like smart TVs by including them in the mix of companies to watch.
  4. Provide an easy-to-use “eraser button” for parents to quickly delete information they previously shared (instead of having to jump through hoops to do so).

Luckily, this is just the start. The FTC still has a long road ahead before any permanent changes to COPPA are made, but lawmakers on Capitol Hill are on board to make these revisions happen.

How can I protect my child’s information until then?

There are tons of ways to protect your kid online. Some ways are as straightforward as teaching them to never save a password online. Others require you to sit down and give your little one the full lowdown on everything from cyberbullying to sexual predators.

Here are 5 ways you can safeguard against companies illegally getting your child’s information without your consent:

  1. Look for links: Each company that collects info from children must clearly link to the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act on their homepage, landing page, and anywhere else they collect personal information. Linking back is a mark of a trustworthy company (or at least one that complies with COPPA).
  2. Keep a pulse on what your child is doing online: Is your kid’s new interactive stuffed animal storing audio of their voice? Does Minecraft know your child’s email? Do a little digging to see if the company in question meets COPPA requirements. It’s also a good idea to do some preemptive research before you buy a new robot tiger or gaming console.
  3. Report anything fishy: If a site is asking for your child’s information without any parental consent (or even if it’s asking for information like their social security number), file a complaint with the Federal Trade Commission. It’ll put the site on the FTC’s radar and let’s face it: safe is always better than sorry.
  4. Use filtering software: Manage which sites your youngster can access through filtering software such as the free SPIN Safe Browser. It prevents your youngest kids from being exposed to the things they are not yet ready for.
  5. Discuss privacy in your home: Talk to our kids about what personal and private information are and why we need to be cautious when providing those details when enjoying time online.

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