Parental concern about online behavioral tracking of teens seems to have surpassed other Web-related privacy and security concerns, including worries about how teens manage their online reputations and whether they are exchanging messages with strangers, according to a new report by the Pew Internet Project and the Berkman Center for Internet & Society at Harvard University.
More than eight in 10 parents -- 81% -- say they're concerned about how much information advertisers can learn about the online activity of minors between the ages of 12 and 17, according to the report. By comparison, 72% of parents say they're concerned about their children’s interactions with people they don't know, 69% express concern about how teens manage their online reputations, and 68% say they're worried that their children's online activity will affect their job or educational prospects.
The study is based on a survey of around 800 parents of Web users ages 12-17. The poll yielded several notable findings, including that 44% of parents say they have read the privacy policies of the sites their children use. Nearly that same proportion -- 42% -- say they have searched for their children's name online in order to figure out what information already exists about them in cyberspace.
The report comes as the Federal Trade Commission is readying new regulations about children's online privacy. The Children's Online Privacy Protection Act broadly bans Web site operators from knowingly collecting personal information from children under 13 without parental consent. The FTC recently proposed new COPPA regulations that would prohibit companies from knowingly using behavioral targeting techniques on children younger than 13.
Privacy advocate Jeff Chester says the report sends a message that the FTC should proceed with its proposal. "This poll suggests that there will be serious political and consumer consequences for those that tread on the privacy of youth," says Chester, executive director of the Center for Digital Democracy.
Ad companies say that online behavioral targeting doesn't pose a privacy risk because any information collected via tracking isn't "personally identifiable" -- meaning that it doesn't include Web users' names or precise addresses.