Children and the Internet

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More than any other group, children have been a center of controversy on the Internet. American youth access the Internet for school, communication, shopping, and recreation. Children's relationship with the Internet has attracted the attention of Internet providers, marketers, advertisers, teachers, lawmakers, and public interest groups. The Internet's role in education, the online collection of children's personal information, and the nature of the material available on the Web, raise a host of controversial issues, including freedom of access to information, regulation of Web site content, and invasion of children's privacy, along with broader issues of social equality, education, and the regulation of business.


Nearly two-thirds of all children use the Internet, each logging on for at least seven hours per week. In 2002, according to Jupiter Research, almost 50 percent of Americans aged 13 to 17 will access the Web, as will approximately 22 million children between the ages of eight and 12. An AOL survey of 10,000 parents reported that 25 percent of their children were using computers by age two, and 90 percent were by age six.

The under-21 crowd constitutes the most rapidly burgeoning segment of the Internet population. Those born after 1983, the so-called Generation Y, represent 21 percent of the total U.S. population. They form America's first wired generation, at ease with computer technology and online information. As they come of age and enter the workforce, they will exert a profound influence on the business, consumer, and social habits of the nation. Hard on their heels is an even more Internet savvy group, children under 12, the Internet's second generation. Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates dubbed them "Generation I" because they represent the first truly Internet-immersed Americans.

However, not all American children enjoyed equal online opportunities. Only 58 percent of schools where a third or more of the students qualify for government subsidized school meals were connected to the Internet at the end of the 1990s, according to the National Center of Education Statistics. In comparison, that rate increased to 78 percent of schools where only a tenth of the students were eligible for meal subsidies. While the U.S. Department of Education reported that nearly every American child had some Internet access at school, studies suggested that children in lower income families and minority households had less access overall.


Jupiter Research reported that 67 percent of teens and 37 percent of children between the ages of five and 12 purchased or researched products on the Internet. American youth aged five and older were expected to spend roughly $1.3 billion online for consumer goods by 2003. According to Forrester Research, children's online spending constitutes a market worth $37 billion. As a result, it was a market that businesses increasingly coveted.

The Internet has accelerated "age compression," and American children have more sophisticated consumer tastes than those of past generations. Trends are communicated almost instantaneously across the Net. Half of American children grow up in dual-income families, and another fourth in single-parent households. Thus, they experience more independence than ever before. This independence often encompasses autonomy when it comes to shopping.

Since advertisers believe brand preferences are set by age 12, merchandisers are anxiously probing this market and devising new methods to tap its potential. Specialized market research firms have emerged that conduct information gathering via online focus groups, surveys, and chat sessions. By 2001, online research was expected to constitute 20 percent of the $4 billion spent each year on U.S. market research overall. Online market researchers often pay children for their participation, either in cash, gift points, or certificates. Additionally, some companies integrate purchasing options into all areas of their Web sites. Others notify registered members by e-mail of special, Internet-only sales promotions. Many advertisers seek visibility on well-known children's sites, such as Disney.

In the past, children's lack of credit cards impeded their online shopping. However, credit-card issuers increased solicitations to young people through the 1990s, mailing out 3.2 billion card offers at the turn of the millennium. Nearly seven out of 10 college students possess their own cards, and issuers are reaching for even younger customers. Some Internet vendors offer Web-only debit cards to teens, good for purchases at an affiliated-Web site.

Online marketing targeted at children has stirred parental concerns, especially about the saturation that can be achieved by a constant bombardment of ads. Parents worry about their inability to supervise children's online purchases, about children's fiscal responsibility, and about marketer's aggressive invasion of children's privacy. In response to such concerns, marketers have focused on generating ways to allay parental fears. Sites such as DoughNET, RocketCash, and iCanBuy offered "digital wallets" funded by a specified cash amount that draws, much like debit cards, on a savings account to prevent children from overspending. Other sites permit parents to stipulate where kids can shop.

Companies argue that the Net provides an opportunity for children to learn about financial responsibility. Even insurance companies have Web sites designed for young people. FleetBoston Financial Corp. claimed that 2,500 schools and 400,000 students accessed its FleetKids site, aimed at kindergarteners through sixth-graders. The site teaches financial skills through games such as the BuyLo/SellHi stock market game and Front Yard Fortunes, in which children build their own businesses.


Children's ever-increasing Net access, much of it unsupervised, has generated concerns beyond those about target marketing. Many parents worry about children's exposure to inappropriate Web site content, such as excessive violence and pornography. Suggested methods for combating this problem include creating special domain names, such to indicate sexually explicit sites, and others to specify content acceptable for childrensimilar to the rating system used for movies. However, the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) has rejected this option because of the inability to adequately enforce such an arrangement.

In addition to accessing online pornography, children also may serve as its subjects. Sites featuring illegal child pornography prompted the creation of, an activist group dedicated to eradicating such sites, whether by hacking into child pornography servers or prosecuting them through standard legal channels. Internet users can report U.S. child pornography sites and the servers carrying them via an online template, and the information is then forwarded to the FBI. The FBI and U.S. Customs Service cooperate with foreign governments on international investigations of child pornography sites. However, servers located in countries that lack treaties with the U.S. are often difficult to shut down.


Many marketers use the Internet to compile market research profiles of pre-adult Net surfers. They may elicit sought-after information with the promise of some of form of compensation. A study by the Annenberg Public Policy Center found that two-thirds of children polled would supply the names of their favorite stores when offered a "great free gift," while 40 percent would volunteer details concerning family cars, their allowances, and family political opinions. Thus, children serve as sources of information about not only their own, but also their family members' purchasing and lifestyle habits. Concerns over such practices center on the fact that children are far less guarded than adults. Hence, the possibility for abusing minors' privacy runs high.

Proponents of greater safeguards for children's online privacy argue that personal information gathered online aids marketers in further targeting a highly vulnerable audience. Marketers use the information to tailor online ads to children and their families, and frequently flood children with unsolicited messages. Some of those concerned also question whether Web sites adequately monitor the parties to whom they supply child-data. Children may expose themselves to dangers when they post personal information on bulletin boards or access chat rooms. An FBI and Department of Justice study determined that child predators utilize such online information.

The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) investigated the privacy issues connected to children's Internet use in 1996. It concluded that children form "a large and powerful segment" of online consumers actively targeted by commercial Web sites. In 1998 the FTC published its findings in Privacy Online: A Report to Congress. The report characterized industry self-regulation as ineffective and called for legislation to protect children's online privacy. The FTC based its recommendations on a survey of 1,402 Web sites, 212 of which were children's sites. While most sites collected children's personal data, only a few informed their users this was being done. Most lacked comprehensive privacy policies. Fewer than one in ten facilitated parental control over site use and less than 25 percent suggested that children ask parental permission before supplying personal data online.


The FTC's findings led the U.S. Congress to pass the Children's Online Privacy Protection Act in 1999. The act mandated that the FTC produce rules to govern the online compilation and use of personal information from children under 13. Web site operators must provide notice and obtain "verifiable parental consent" before they can gather or disclose information from children. Web sites must alert parents about their policies concerning children's personal data, and site operators must remedy situations when a child's information has been disclosed. If a parent requests it, the operator is required to describe the personal information collected from the child. COPPA restricts enticing children to disclose personal information through contests or prizes. However, it does not provide parents or children a private right of action. It also shields Web sites from liability if they can demonstrate a good faith effort to remedy prior disclosure of a child's personal information. Under the FTC's rule, businesses may implement self-regulatory "safe harbor" programs by submitting guidelines to the FTC for approval. Many smaller Internet businesses protested COPPA, stating that compliance costs would be impossible to manage. They argued that parental compliance forms would discourage traffic to lesser-known sites and many children would access teen or adult-oriented sites to circumvent parental compliance altogether.


Congressional legislation wasn't the only vehicle to regulate children's Internet interactions. The industry voluntarily launched several self-regulatory practices concerning children. In 1998, the Online Privacy Alliance (OPA), a coalition of industry groups, was formed to tackle Web-related privacy concerns. Among its measures were proposed online privacy guidelines governing the online collection of personal data, and guidelines protecting children's privacy.

TRUSTe, a nonprofit organization, certifies that its members have disclosed their online information-collection practices. In return, members display a seal verifying program participation. The Better Business Bureau Online sponsors a similar effort. Members must inform users of their collection practices, supply data security, submit to periodic monitoring, and use encryption for the receipt and transfer of sensitive information. Skeptics counter that industry self-regulation doesn't guarantee compliance or enforcement of programs. Moreover, few Web providers participate in seal programs.

Filtering software was another protective measure Web sites could use to safeguard children. Such software shields children from objectionable Web sites and protects children's privacy by screening incoming and outgoing text. Specific terms prompt outgoing screening and block sensitive information from being sent to the provider. Among software available was Cybersitter, NetNanny, CyberPatrol, and Specs for Kids.

Adults also can access the Internet from "filtered ISPs," which invoke blocking criteria at the server level. Safe sites offer access to pre-approved pages suitable for young children. Finally, adults can access several Web sites that monitor the appropriateness of other Web sites for their children.


The Internet's role in American elementary and secondary education was far from settled in the early 2000s. Proponents argued that the technology would make education more relevant to children by better preparing them for the modern workplace and by capitalizing on a form of technology that children already access for pleasure. As of 2000, nearly 95 percent of public schools supplied Internet access to their students, a 60-percent increase since 1994. However, less than two percent of the $360 billion annual public education budget was earmarked for technology.

Teacher preparation constituted another obstacle to enhanced utilization of the Internet. The National Education Association estimated that only one-third of teachers possess the knowledge to use technology effectively. However, school technology spending has increased, and most major technology firms are poised to take advantage of this. IBM, Intel, and Microsoft all launched initiatives aimed at teacher training. Many start-ups have appeared to fill the vacuum as well, drawing about $1 billion in venture capital in 1999 and 2000, according to Merrill Lynch & Co.

Commercial initiatives include the Virtual High School of Concord, Massachusetts, America's largest Web-based school, which offers Net courses. For each course a teacher contributes online, his or her school can enroll up to 20 students. AP courses are also available for purchase, delivered via distance learning to schools that can't afford to set up their own offerings. Applications include student-designed course-related Web pages, parent-teacher communication via e-mail, and homework on the Internet. The Internet also allows teachers to collaborate with colleagues across the nation to develop lesson plans and share teaching strategies.

Some warn that, due to budget limitations, schools will rely on online advertising to foot the bill. For example, ZapMe! Corp. provided schools with computer labs and Internet access free of charge in exchange for permission to run ads on the school computers. Additionally, the New York City Board of Education voted to create a school Internet portal funded through online ad sales and e-commerce site licensing.


Libraries face particular challenges concerning children's access to the Internet. Though voters and the courts have favored a lack of restrictions in the interests of intellectual freedom, many groups call for mandatory filtering of the Internet in schools and public libraries. Some libraries require parental agreement forms before granting children Internet access. Others mandate that youngsters be accompanied by a parent when using computers. Still others install filtering software on computers utilized by children.

Although they serve as protective measures, strategies such as filtering also carry disadvantages. Though "objectionable" terms can be blocked, filters may prevent students from conducting research on legitimate topics such as medical advances or disease. A student, for example, might not be able to conduct online searches regarding AIDS transmission or breast cancer, if such filtering were in place.


While the myriad issues surrounding children and the Internet create a complex web of conflicting interests, ethical complications, and social and economic implications, the Internet is here to stay, and kids are becoming increasingly sophisticated about incorporating it into their daily lives.


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SEE ALSO: Digital Divide; Higher Education, E-Commerce and; Global E-Commerce Regulation; Legal Issues; Privacy: Issues, Policies, Statements; Profiling

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Children and the Internet

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