Apps, social networks pose rising danger to kids online

By Byron Acohido, USA TODAY, 07Sept2011, P3B

There is a rising threat to kids who habituate the Internet: the likelihood that a popular mobile app or social-networking service will invade their privacy.

The Federal Trade Commission last month announced a $50,000 settlement with app maker W3 Innovations for collecting and dispersing information of kids under 13 in violation of the Children’s Online Privacy and Protection Act, or COPPA.

Earlier this year the FTC wrested a record $3 million settlement from online game developer Playdom, now a division of Disney, for similar COPPA violations.

Click here to access advice for protecting kids online.

Child-safety advocates say identity thieves and pedophiles have begun taking advantage of youngsters’ increasing infatuation with mobile devices and Web apps.


“Children are using these services more and more, opening themselves up to more information disclosures,” says Andrew Serwin, chairman of the privacy practice at law firm Foley & Lardner. “And there’s more and more mobile services directed to children, as well.”

W3 Innovations published Emily’s Girl World, Emily’s Dress Up and Emily’s Runway High Fashion, online services which encouraged kids to create virtual models and outfits and e-mail a fictitious character named Emily with comments and blog posts. Apple iPhone and iPad users downloaded Emily apps more than 50,000 times.

“We want to make it crystal clear, to app developers and to others in this new mobile space, that we believe the protection under COPPA is not platform specific,” says David Vladeck, director of the FTC’s consumer protection bureau. “If you can’t do it online, you can’t do it in an app.”

FTC staff is hammering out revisions to COPPA rules likely to include different guidelines for verifying parental permission for kids to use certain apps, and specific rules to protect children using Internet-connected mobile devices, Serwin says.

Meanwhile, more children than ever are using mobile devices and spending longer hours socializing online and and using cool Web apps designed to gather data in support of selling advertising.

A recent survey by anti-virus firm AVG found roughly half of children ages 6 through 9 regularly interact with friends online, yet 58% of their parents admitted to not being knowledgeable about social networks.

Rising commercial pressures for kids to get online add to already intense peer pressures, says Hanan Lavy, CEO of child security software maker United Parents.

Facebook is open to those 13 or older, though a recent Consumer Reports survey found 7.5 million Facebook users 12 and under. And Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg has said he would like to formally extend Facebook to kids.

“The risks to children from social networking at an early age are numerous,” Lavy says. “As pedophiles become more technologically sophisticated, they’re able to find and connect with kids easier than with previous methods.”

More time spent online also means higher risk of children getting exposed to inappropriate content and advertising. Identity thieves target minors’ names and Social Security numbers to create bogus credit accounts with a lower likelihood of getting discovered.

Last June,  AVG  released results of a survey of  6-to-9-year olds and their parents  in North America, Europe, Australia and New Zealand. Some findings:

  • More than half (51%) of 6-to-9-year-olds use some kind of kids’ social network such as Club Penguin or WebKinz.
  • Roughly one in five use email, and despite being under age, 14% are on Facebook, according to their parents.
  • Forty-seven percent of 6 to 9-year-olds talk to their friends on the Internet.
  • Almost one in six 6-to-9-year-olds and one in five 8-to-9-year olds have experienced what their parents consider objectionable or aggressive behavior online.
  • American children average four hours online each week, slightly more than the worldwide average of 3.5 hours per week.
  • 58 percent of parents admit they are not well-informed nor understand their children’s online social networks.
  • Only 56 percent of parents were certain their family computer has parental controls or a safety program in place


“We believe that the opportunities for this digitally-savvy generation are endless, but they need to be taught ‘safety first’ much like any other life skill and guarded against dangers,” says said J.R. Smith, CEO, AVG Technologies. “Based on these findings, we’re excited to launch a new book as part of our effort to help nurture discussions around internet safety with kids.”

AVG makes available a digital book, titled Little Bird’s Internet Security Adventure, which teaches preschool children about the many dangers lurking online. Throughout Little Bird’s journey home to talk to her grandmother on the computer, she meets young zoo friends who have questions or concerns about online behavior.

From dealing with an online bully, computer viruses, “yucky pictures” and requests from strangers for personal information, Little Bird has a simple solution that teaches kids to stay on guard and always keep their parents informed.

The new book launches online in Kindle, iPad and desktop versions, just in time to educate and protect children spending more and more time online this summer and celebrate International Children’s Day. The company has also pledged a donation of more than 20,000 books to Head Start Organizations and other early childhood educators across the United States as part of a worldwide, multilingual initiative across the globe.

“I wouldn’t teach my children to ride a bike without a helmet or leave them by a pool without teaching them to swim, and I certainly wouldn’t sit them in front of a family computer or mobile device without up-to-date security software, parental controls and the know-how to handle inevitable situations,” said Smith, who co-created the book and wrote its foreword. “The goal in creating Little Bird was to facilitate conversations with children about how to handle bullies, strangers and other online dangers. Children need to know that they should always come to Mom, Dad or another adult with questions when other safeguards fail.”

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