THE BLOG
09/24/2013 03:10 pm ET | Updated Nov 24, 2013

5 Things Parents Should Know About COPPA

Do you have a child that uses the Internet or plays with an app on your phone or tablet? Unless you live in Mad Men times, you've probably answered "yes" to these questions. Then, you should have heard about COPPA, right?

As a new parent, I didn't until recently. I assumed it was the Barry Manilow song. However, COPPA is the Children's Online Privacy Protection Act, a U.S. federal law enforced by the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) to protect the privacy of children when they go online. It requires parental consent from websites and apps looking to collect personal information from users under 13-years-old. It's the most significant overhaul of the nation's laws to protect children's online privacy. In short, COPPA is good news.

The new set of rules went into effect this summer and are an update to a law Congress passed in 1998, when few could have conceived of YouTube, Xbox Live or iPads. Technology moves fast, and the FTC's latest interpretation of the Children's Online Privacy Protection Act is designed to keep up with new ways our kids interact with the plethora of digital services available today.

The recent changes cover photos, audio recordings and geolocations. It also extends protections to mobile apps, where kids are increasingly spending their time. And, it closes a major loophole that excused sites when they used a third-party company to collect children's data. Bottom line: Parents have more control than ever over the types of information collected about their young children. Yay!

But, as a parent, what do these changes actually mean? The FTC recently released a detailed explanation of the new rules. For busy parents (I know that's redundant) with little time to comb over the fine print, I recently sat down with Nancy MacIntyre mom of two and CEO and Co-Founder of Fingerprint, a kid's mobile play and learn app network, to hear several tips that help parents understand the new COPPA rules and how to protect their family.


1. What types of information are now protected?

Originally, COPPA covered a child's full name, mailing address, email address, telephone number, Social Security number and other details such as hobbies that could be used to identify the child.

"These days, there are more sophisticated ways for finding people, tracking where they are and what they're doing," said MacIntyre. Check-in apps such as Foursquare ask users to broadcast where they are. Navigation apps can now pinpoint a device's location, and its user within several feet. And, image sensors such as the Xbox Kinect can now identify individual players. As a result, the revised rules prohibit companies from collecting photos, videos, audio recordings, screen names, IP addresses, location data and unique identification numbers associated with each electronic device.

2. How will parents know?
"The new rules require companies that have services directed at young kids to seek parental permission before they collect a child's personal information, laying out exactly what data they are collecting and how they're using it," says MacIntyre. "No more one-time universal waivers that allow companies to collect all manner of unspecified data in perpetuity."

Many sites geared to children prominently tout COPPA compliance, TRUSTe certification or ESRB Safe Harbor seal. All better ensure that a child's privacy is protected and are a quick check box item for parents looking for optimum privacy safe guards. In fact, KidzVuz.com, a safe, moderated video review sharing site for kids age 7-12, is an ideal example of a kid-centric community following all the rules.

"As moms, protecting child privacy was paramount to building our kid-centric community and we follow all the COPPA rules and more," said Rebecca Levey, co-founder of KidzVuz. "Our site requires verifiable parental consent before any child can create a video or comment. Plus, we clearly list our Privacy Policy and safety information, and use ESRB as our Safe Harbor certification service."

3. What services are covered?
In addition to Web sites, the new rules cover gaming platforms, mobile apps, social networks and voice-over-Internet services, but only if they are directed at kids younger than 13, such as Club Penguin, Kidzui, Giant Hello and Free Realms.

The same rules apply to apps. With 300 apps added to the App Store each day, it's all the more important to tap into resources like Common Sense Media or the Entertainment Software Ratings Board, which offers a free ratings app that tell parents if an app shares a user's personal information, tracks location or lets players interact with each other. Yes, there's an app for that!

4. What's not covered?
While COPPA covers a wide range of services, it doesn't cover everything.

You may be surprised to know that COPPA doesn't extend to many of the online services that are popular with young kids such as YouTube, Facebook and Twitter because they're not "directed" at kids. Even when some require that users be over 13, many kids still access their services using a fake DOB. An estimated 7.5 million kids under 13, for example, have Facebook accounts. Online contests, non-profit groups and Ask-The-Author sites are also exempt. The rules requiring parental consent only kick-in if the company knows that the person on the other end is a child under 13.

5. So what's a concerned parent to do?

Talk to your kids. "Help your kids understand what constitutes personal information and know to never share full name, location, school, or any personal details online (Internet, apps, games)," advises MacIntyre. Since COPPA doesn't apply when kids lie about their age or find other workarounds, it's important that kids understand the importance of privacy.

From play to learning and beyond -- our children's world is digital. The new COPPA enhancements provide an important safety net for parents and clear guidelines for interactive companies. However, the reality is that raising digitally savvy kids starts at home -- one conversation at a time.