Family Secrets for Sale? Ask Your Kids (and Offer a Gift)

The fact that the phrase generation gap isn’t used much anymore does not mean that the phenomenon has disappeared. In a recent study for the Annenberg Public Policy Center titled “The Internet and the Family 2000: The View from Parents/The View from Kids,” Dr. Joseph Turow found that when it comes to the intersecting realms of family privacy and the Internet, a significant generation gap exists.
   Turow, the Robert Lewis Shayon Professor of Communication at the Annenberg School, found that a significant number of kids don’t have a problem with revealing sensitive family information in exchange for a free gift—while parents, not surprisingly, are less keen on the idea. Based on a survey conducted this past winter of 304 children aged 10-17 and 1001 parents (having at least one child between 8 and 17), Turow and Lilach Nir, a doctoral student in communication, found that:

• American kids (aged 10-17) are considerably more likely than parents to say that it’s OK to give out family information to commercial Web sites in exchange for a free gift—especially if they’re told how much the gift is worth. (Examples of that information include how many days of work their parents have missed, the size of their own allowance, the names of their parents’ favorite stores, and what their parents do on weekends.) Asked if they would answer these types of questions in return for a “great free product,” 22 percent said Yes; 63 percent initially said No; and most of the rest said their answer depended on the product or the information in question. But when the interviewer said that the theoretical product was worth $25, $50 or $100, another 23 percent said Yes, bringing the total of potential bean-spillers up to 45 percent. While the percentage of parents who immediately said they would divulge sensitive information was almost as high (18 percent) as in the children’s group, “only” another 11 percent (making a total of 29 percent) said Yes if the gift was worth $25, $50 or $100.

• Almost half (46 percent) of U.S. parents are not aware that Web sites use “cookies” to gather information on users without their knowing it.

• Sixty-one percent of parents say they are more concerned about what children between the ages of 13 and 17 might reveal to marketers than they are about younger children. (And rightly so: 39 percent of the older kids said they would give up personal information, as opposed to 16 percent of those aged 10-12.)

• Forty-one percent of online parents with kids aged 8-17 and 36 percent of kids aged 10-17 report having experienced “incidents of disagreement, worry or anger” in their family over kids’ releasing such information to the Web.

   On the positive side, 89 percent of parents believe that access to the Internet helps their children with schoolwork (up from 84 percent two years ago); 74 percent of parents believe that children who don’t have Internet access are at a disadvantage compared to their wired peers; and 51 percent of parents believe that the Internet is a “safe place for my children to spend time” (up from 40 percent two years ago).
   Ironically, concerns about invasions of family privacy led to the 1998 Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA), in which Congress ordered the Federal Trade Commission to regulate data collection on sites targeting children under 13. The good news is that, as of this past April, Web sites must now get parents’ permission before requesting information from children under 13. The bad news is that the rules do not apply to children 13 and older.
   Parents, Turow stressed in an interview, should “talk to their kids about the nature of what their family thinks information privacy is,” though he also noted that there is often a discrepancy between parents and kids about what was—or was not—said.
   In addition to arguing that Web sites should be prohibited from offering free gifts to kids in exchange for information, Turow urged passage of a “Web Freedom of Information Act” that would allow individuals “to know what Web sites know about them.” After all, he noted, “the smallest bits of information divulged by kids about their home life” can be used to create “detailed portraits” of a family’s lifestyle. While such portraits may be inaccurate, they can nonetheless “profoundly influence how marketers, banks, insurance companies, government agencies and other organizations treat family members.”
   One question still puzzles Turow. If, unlike you, your kids are willing to give out personal information online, what does that mean? Is it a generational difference or a “maturational” one—one that will gradually disappear as the kids get older and wiser?
    “I don’t know the answer to that,” he says, “but I think it’s a really important question.”

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