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Dear Privacy Pros,

I need your help. It’s not fair to be a parent and be aware of privacy. This needs to change. Educating kids is one thing, but what we really need to do is educate parents.

I read my son’s Christmas list the other day and on it were four things, one of which was a white Christmas—which it seems he won’t be getting—and another was the free messaging app, Tango. He’s been asking me if he can download it for a couple of weeks now, using the ever-present rationale, “All my friends have it,” and soliciting the ever-present response, “I’m not your friends’ mom.”

Having a privacy-aware parent could very likely be the worst thing that ever happened to a tween in this day and age. “I’m sorry, but you’re not 13.” “I need to look it up on Common Sense.” “I have to read the Privacy Policy.” These phrases come out of my mouth so often I should just record them for reuse. And sure enough, Tango is indeed a social networking app and does not comply with COPPA and therefore, children under 13 are not allowed to use it—much like many of the other apps he’s asked for over the past year +.

This time, however, he didn’t believe me. He was literally in tears. He couldn’t possibly believe that ALL of his friends’ parents would allow them to use something they aren’t allowed to use. His buddies group chat on this, send each other funny videos and basically have themselves an online party that I’ve told him he can’t go to. It’s terrible. I feel awful. It’s not that I don’t want him doing these things—on the contrary, I follow the danah boyd philosophy of giving kids the tools to be part of the online world so they can test and learn before they can really screw things up for themselves. But I won’t allow him to join a site where he’s able to be contacted by any Tom, Dick or hairy old (wo)man. And I won’t allow him to further confound the herculean task of compliance by juking the validation mechanisms.

“I know,” I said, “having me as a mom sucks sometimes. I totally get it. I’m sorry.”

Now, I know for a fact that many of these parents would never allow their kids to join Facebook because they’re not 13. But I also know that many of these same kids have Instagram accounts. What’s the diff?!?! Why do parents think Facebook is the under-13 danger zone, but other social media sites where children are sharing photos of themselves and their friends in their houses, bedrooms, jammies—Vines of them singing the new Taylor Swift song—are completely fine?

Kudos to the FTC for doing their part by warning yet another kids app maker for collecting data without parental consent, but when parents don't even know what they don't know, all that hard work is for naught. Perhaps we should be giving Facebook a great big thank you. Their privacy foibles are the only reason a lot of parents even know there’s an age limit. Now, if only they knew how to use the transitive property.

So, privacy pros, I’m asking for your help. For me. For my 11-year-old son. For all of us trying to be the best parents we can be. Spread the word: In your PTA meetings, in your local newspaper, host online awareness nights. In the meantime, I will be looking for a messaging app for kids under 13 and trying to find a way to encourage all my kid’s friends to switch.

Wish me luck.

photo credit: tomocrowley via photopin cc


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  • comment Mark • Dec 23, 2014
    Back in April there was this posting on a Washington University Law privacy education program, aimed at Middle school aged children:
    As I recall, there were freely available downloads of templates for doing classroom training on multiple privacy topics.  Perhaps engaging the school district with some recommendations for joint student/parent training sessions might help.
  • comment Samuel • Jan 5, 2015
    Just saw this and don't really have any suggestions for you other than hang in there! Our youngest is now 21 so we just missed the explosion of social media as he was a bit older when he got a phone and then FB.  Pressure now must be pretty horrific in middle school, but from someone who lived through the "But my friends all . . . "   with three sons, perseverance and consistency does pay off in the end.  also, talking with other parents also helps, as you don't always realize how uneasy other parents feel about these requests, but they don't know where to go or who to talk to about them either.  Good luck!