Apps, social networks pose new threat to kids

ByByron Acohido, USA TODAY
September 06, 2011, 8:53 PM

— -- 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.

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.

Useful guides for protecting kids online:

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