Parents worry about strangers — and advertisers — tracking kids online, says report

Nov. 21, 2012 at 2:07 PM ET

Reuters file /
81 percent of parents say they're concerned about how much information advertisers can learn about their child's online behavior.

Parents of online teens are concerned about what exactly their kids do online, but they're also wary of how their children are being tracked by advertisers, according to a new report.

The findings come at a time when the Federal Trade Commission is reviewing the Children's Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA), a law passed nearly 15 years ago to require websites to get parental permission before collecting data about children ages 12 and younger. The FTC is considering updating COPPA to reflect an era of lives lived on cellphones, apps and social media sites, where data collection has become the norm and not the exception.

"Parents are anxious about a wide range of online risks for their children, but it is particularly striking that their current level of worry about data collection by advertisers meets or exceeds other concerns about their child's online activity," said Mary Madden, research associate for the Pew Internet Project, and co-author of the report, "Parents, Teens and Online Privacy," said in a statement.

The report was done in collaboration with the Berkman Center for Internet & Society at Harvard University. 

Here's what the two organizations learned from parents of online teens:

  • 81 percent say they are concerned about how much information advertisers can learn about their child's online behavior; 46 percent said they are "very concerned."
  • 72 percent are concerned about "how their child interacts online with people they do not know," and 53 percent are "very concerned."
  • 69 percent worry about how their child's online activities "might affect their future academic or employment opportunities," with 44 percent "very concerned" about it.

Among parents of the youngest teens, ages 12 and 13, nearly two-thirds — 63 percent — said they are "very" concerned about their child's "interactions with people they do not know online," and 57 percent said they are "very concerned about how their child manages his or her reputation online."

Meanwhile, teens themselves have "mixed feelings about being friends with their parents on social networking sites like Facebook," said Sandra Cortesi, director of the Berkman Center's Youth and Media Project.

"Some teens like the fact that they are friends with their family members," she said in a statement. "Other young users prefer not to friend their parents, but do it anyway because it is expected from them. And yet others keep their profiles secret or restrict parents' access to information."

Sometimes the reason teens don't want to be "friends" with their parents on Facebook isn't necessarily to hide something from their parents, but rather to avoid embarrassment — or what's perceived as embarrassment during the teen years.

"I know for some of my friends on Facebook, some of their family members are really obnoxious," one 13-year-old girl told a study interviewer. "Someone will change their status update to 'going to the park' and then you’ll see eighty family members saying, 'Have fun at the park.' "

Nearly 6 in 10 parents said they've talked to their teens about information they posted online that was of concern, and 39 percent said they've helped set up privacy settings for their children.

The research was based on a nationally representative phone survey of 802 parents and their 802 teens, ages 12-17, that was done between July and September.

But some parents remain unaware of what their kids are doing on sites like Facebook.

"The day my father gets on Facebook is the day I’ll be out of Facebook," a 14-year-old girl told a study interviewer.

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