OTM & dana boyd on Internet Age Restrictions, Privacy, & Implications for Schools

Ohhhh, so that’s where the 13-year old concept comes from! When teachers talk about Facebook – and we do, oh yes, we do – the age restriction is always in the background and often the subject of conversation. Cyberbullying in middle school? Solution! The age restriction on Facebook. Does it have the force of law? I always scoffed at the idea, but it actually does in the United States. On The Media‘s current podcast addresses the issue of the age restriction resulting from the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act and parental perceptions and decisions around it. I found parental perceptions of the age restriction informative and the implications of privacy violations by the very free web services like Facebook or Gmail that kids are clamoring to use fascinating, particularly in terms of the implications for educators.

When educators speak about privacy concerns, they worry primarily about cyberstalking or cyberbullying – interactions between people, facilitated by technology, that go horribly wrong. However, COPPA isn’t built to protect children from other people, per se, so much as it is built to protect children and their personal information from institutions or corporations. That’s fascinating. This concept is a game changer – privacy is more about protecting children from becoming the products of free online services, sold to advertisers for targeted marketing and come-what-may, than about protecting children in public interactions online.

dana boyd points out, however, that parents have mixed views of the age requirements of Facebook: only 53% of parents reported knowing that Facebook had a minimum age, and 35% of those believed it to be a recommendation rather than a requirement. Only two parents from this group “referenced privacy. Amidst the open–ended responses, the notion of maturity or age appropriateness came up frequently. Some parents highlighted maturity with respect to content; others referenced maturity with respect to safety issues like bullying and strangers” (¶50). In short, most parents who know there is an age restriction view it more like a movie rating than a restriction. Privacy is a slippery concept that is obviously hard to define.

At my school, we are having discussions about the “Responsible Use Policy” and our school publishing policy as we move to more and more student publishing online – e-portfolios in the form of blogs, an online student newspaper, and multimedia publication via Youtube, Soundcloud, and so on. Our policies state that they are “informed by” COPPA, and our focus for protecting children’s privacy should focus on those under 13, generally students in the middle school. Of course, this is not to say that we should be careless with how we handle demographic or personal contact information for anyone, student or otherwise, in our institution. But, as dana boyd points out, a regular approach of law enforcement and others teaching kids about online safety is to suggest lying for safety. She states in this podcast that a large number of kids on Facebook identify their location as Afghanistan or Zimbabwe, because these come first and last in the alphabetical order of countries, respectively. The flip side of this message is that lying gets kids access, as boyd points out. Ironically, it is lying that subjects Facebook and free email providers to the vagaries of COPPA, because they are then automatically holding, mining, and marketing the personal information of children under 13. Students are opting into violations of their privacy through lying in ways that they believe will keep them safe from a threat that may not exist or is, in my opinion, quite overblown.

The implications for teachers are many. First, we should work with kids under 13 to identify the sources of actual threats to their privacy, that they are the products and not the customers of web services like social networks and free email. Second, we should craft an environment and a curriculum for students over 13 that focuses on personal responsibility, honest and ethical participatory citizenship in public communities, and conscious use of the Internet with its myriad tools and sporadic pitfalls. To that end, I have proffered an edited version of our online publishing policy that states the following:

Publishing via the Internet is encouraged at (our school). It is viewed as an effective way for students and faculty to publish their work and ideas to the broader world because it:

  • includes broad representation from all students/groups within (our) school community
  • reflects the academic and social values of the (school) Mission & Philosophy
  • encourages students to produce their best work for publishing through a process of revision and to accurately reflect their developing levels of skills
  • creates an opportunity for students to discover how to be positive, respectful, contributing members of an open community
  • serves as a springboard for peer review, reflection, and collaboration with a global community of learners
  • encourages the conscious development of a positive online presence or “digital footprint” for every child

The US Children‘s Online Privacy Protection Act, while not binding on the school, has informed (our school) guidelines with respect to Internet publishing and privacy. The US Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act defines a child this way: “The term “child” means an individual under the age of 13.” As such, we recognize that (our school), in which all students are 13 or older, needs to provide a safe, guided approach to managing online presences or “digital footprints.” The following expectations apply for all members of (our school) community when preparing material for Internet publishing on (our school) Web Site or on external websites for school-related purposes, like blogging, posting media, or collaborating with others.

  • Students are solely responsible for what they choose to publish online.
  • Students publish material online with the understanding that their published content should adhere to academic and/or professional norms and appropriately reflect (our school’s) Mission & Philosophy.
  • No current, specific demographic or contact information will be published which will identify a student, faculty, or staff member (i.e. home address, telephone no., etc.).
  • Personal information regarding faculty or staff members will not be published without prior permission.
  • Online publishing is a public activity, and every effort is made at (our school) by teachers and administrators to teach and model appropriate public behavior in an academic context.
  • Students involved in specific academic activities which use Internet publishing as an integral part of their academic experience (i.e. student newspaper or literary magazine) should understand that their names and/or pictures may be published in relation to work undertaken as part of these activities.
Student Publishing Statement
Content published by students is not intended to be official (school) communication and does not necessarily reflect the viewpoint of the school. (Our school) is responsible only for official content published through official channels.
Can a change of policy result in any actual changes of procedure, values, or perception? I’m hopeful that a statement of values may be a first step in the right direction. I’d love any and all feedback on these policy ideas, as well.

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