Savvy Consumer: Trust for Our Children’s Digital Future

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By Katie Goldstein

Learn how laws, guidelines, and education help parents protect and empower their kids online.

Trust is defined as the belief that someone or something is reliable, good, honest, and effective. In today’s digital age, with a proliferation of available content, knowing whom and what we can trust is challenging. The internet has expanded its media domination over the last decade due largely to the advancement of mobile internet technologies. The frequency and ease with which children can access and connect have surged, bringing issues of trust to the forefront.

As digital citizens, we are all faced with the task of evaluating the credibility and biases of information, including advertising. This is complicated since the lines between entertainment and advertising are often blurred — making it difficult to tell when we are being advertised to. We are no longer dealing with the old-fashioned advertising model of television programming with commercial breaks. Today, seemingly objective online content may be sponsored by advertisers, and online influencers (like celebrities) may be paid to create social media posts that appear to be honest endorsements. All these factors make it challenging — to know who is trustworthy
— even for adults.

In many ways, children are not so different from adults — they use the internet to learn new things, watch videos, connect with friends, explore social media, play games, and do schoolwork. However, unlike at a library, when kids go online, several issues relating to trust may arise: First, are your kids dealing with a reliable source? Second, can you trust what else your kids encounter during their online escapades, like advertising and tracking? Finally, can you trust your children to make responsible decisions?

Children may have the freedom to browse the internet — but are we asking too much to expect
that they have the critical skills to do so? Luckily, there are laws and guidelines to protect kids.

Twenty years ago, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) created the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA), which imposes certain requirements on operators of websites and online services directed to kids under 13 years old and on operators who know they’re dealing with children under 13. COPPA’s main goal is to ensure parents have control over what information is collected from their children online (FTC, n.d.).

Additionally, guidelines issued by the Children’s Advertising Review Unit (CARU) acknowledge that advertisers have special responsibilities when advertising to children or collecting data from children online. Children have a limited capacity to evaluate the credibility of advertising, and advertisers must take children’s limited knowledge, experience, and maturity into account (CARU, 2014). CARU also has guidelines for online privacy protection.

To ensure that companies that want to do the right thing get it right, the FTC enables industry groups to create Safe Harbor programs to assist companies in the implementation of COPPA. Organizations like CARU (which was the first FTC-approved Safe Harbor) work with companies to help them comply.

Membership in a Safe Harbor program isn’t just good for the participants, who are essentially insulated from FTC action; it’s also an important tool for consumer trust. When an app or website has a Safe Harbor seal, it allows parents to trust that it has been vetted and approved for COPPA-compliant information collection practices. Not all Safe Harbors are created equal, though; parents need to do their homework.

Although the FTC’s COPPA Safe Harbor program is one vehicle to help strengthen our trust online, it is only a partial solution to a complex problem.

We also must empower our children to make good decisions on the internet, and the best way to do this is to educate them.

Fortunately, CARU offers parents resources like A Parent’s Guide to Advertising and Your Child as well as other tips for keeping kids safe online. Parents should use this opportunity to have conversations and engage with their kids.

As technology becomes more sophisticated and children have access at even younger ages, it is important that both parents and children remain vigilant about who deserves their trust.

REFERENCES

Children’s Advertising Review Unit. (2014). Self-regulatory program for children’s advertising. Retrieved from https://us.bbb.org/CARU-Guidelines
Federal Trade Commission. (n.d.). Children’s privacy. Retrieved from https://www.ftc.gov/tips-advice/business-center/privacy-and-security/childrens-privacy

Katie Goldstein is a Senior Attorney for the Children’s Advertising Review Unit (CARU), a self-regulatory program administered by Council of Better Business Bureaus. She is responsible for evaluating child-directed advertising, collaborating with advertisers to ensure compliance with CARU’s guidelines, and writing case decisions. Goldstein is responsible for organizing CARU’s events and conferences. She also created and continues to update CARU’s social media, which keep the industry informed of CARU’s recent news and developments.