I was clicking around Mashable.com the other day, one of my favorite sites, when I stumbled upon an opinion article that took a particular hold over me. It dealt with the ever present issue: the Web and children.

Do you remember when kids used to spend hours playing outside? Head to the park for the afternoon? Leave on family walks with parents and maybe a dog? I do.

Now it seems that all kids want to do is stay inside and surf the internet for hours. I lived in a neighborhood where all of the kids would play games outside everyday after school until dark. Whether it was soccer, basketball, foursquare, catch or a made up game, we would do nothing but whine whenever the dreaded, “Time for dinner!” echoed into the streets from one of our houses. Now, I never see the younger generation playing outside in my neighborhood… or any neighborhood for that matter.

As children turn to the internet to spend their time, numerous ethical questions arise. One of them being whether or not marketers and advertisers should be allowed to target children. The concept of behavioral advertising is becoming more and more known, but should it apply to kids?

James P. Steyer shouts a resounding, “NO” to answer that question. He claims that not only does tracking children invade their privacy, but also causes concern that what they say and do will be turned around by marketers and information aggregators who aim to profit from their personal information and online activities.

The key policy protecting children’s online rights is the Children’s Online Privacy Protect Act, which prohibits the collection of “personal identification” of kids 12 and under without parental consent. But this act was made before Facebook, Myspace and Twitter came to be. These sites, who all monitor personal activity, oppose legislation to restrict information gathering.

An option is in the works right now, a “Do Not Track” bill, that will set standards for how and when personal information can be collected. This bill will present the option to ‘opt out’ of online tracking. But, again, why should kids have to ‘opt out’ to protect their privacy? Shouldn’t they be excluded all together without needing to take that extra step?

Companies can track things like what websites are visited, how many times they’re visited, what searches are conducted, what videos are watched, as well as comments, emails, and instant messages, all without kids or parents being aware of what is happening.

Steyer strongly argues four rules for protecting privacy.

  • Instead of having to opt out, all sites should be opt in, meaning they must ask first before obtaining personal information.
  • A lot of policies are so complex people don’t bother to read them and go on to click “I Agree” without knowing what they are agreeing to. All privacy policies should cease this tactic and go forward being clear and transparent with their policies.
  • Everyone should be educated about online privacy.
  • Protection should apply across all platforms.

As children increasingly turn to the Web for entertainment, they are also subjecting themselves to the dangers of online predators and having their privacy rights be violated. I agree with Steyer that precautions need to be made to ensure the safety of our kids and the next generation. I would much rather my kids play outside than worry about not only what they’re doing on the Web, but what the Web is doing to them… Then again, it’ll be years until I have kids, and who knows what kind of technology will be out at that point…

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