The COVID-19 pandemic accelerated a dangerous and growing trend: Big Tech companies are spying on children for profit. This practice is ethically repugnant and actively harmful to kids’ mental health, physical safety, and lifetime privacy—and action is urgently needed. We cannot allow the tech companies to normalize spying on kids and continue to profit off these practices. Because the platforms are failing to take it upon themselves to make the necessary changes, we must consider urgent fixes from legislators. We are releasing four major demands to correct online harms and chart a new course for an internet that uplifts and empowers the next generation.
The harms to children online have passed a threshold where half-measures are no longer acceptable. Recent studies have linked heavy social media use to severe depression and negative self image in girls as young as 11. Reports to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Kids (NCMEC) of online enticement of minors increased by 97% last year to more than 37,000. One third of American kids had a “bad” experience online during lockdown, everything from bullying to unsolicited contact from strangers, but 90% didn’t tell their parents about it. Meanwhile, only 61% of parents report using “parental controls” on kids devices—and in many cases parental controls are confusing or ineffective at keeping kids safe.
Kids love the internet, and with good reason as it can be an inspiring place to connect with friends, explore, and learn about the world. Most kids say they prefer to get news online, yet only 44% feel confident that they can identify fake news, and 31% said they were fooled into sharing fake news. This creates a toxic environment in which malleable youth can encounter the extremist ideologies and disinformation that runs rampant online—skewing their view of the world and damaging their development in it.
With a plethora of harms so apparent and the solutions laid out below quite obvious, the question is why so few meaningful protections for kids have been adopted online. The answer is that the digital ad market for children is valued at $1.7 billion. The data of children is valuable—so valuable as to encourage bad practices that further expose kids to harm. Google is being sued for illegally collecting biometric data from millions of students and TikTok recently settled a lawsuit for illegally collecting children’s personal information. Meanwhile, data breaches at U.S. schools have exposed more than 24 million student records since 2005. Companies are financially incentivized to purposefully design manipulative platforms that destroy our children’s rights because, put simple, it makes tech companies a lot of money.
Similar to candy cigarettes, the rollout of YouTube Kids, Messenger Kids, and Instagram for Kids are based on the early recruitment of users into “wastelands of vapid” content—compounding harms by addicting kids early. Products like these are deeply inadequate to the task of protecting children, given that they are still foundationally based on a business model that demands spying on, manipulating, and profiting from young users.
As expert digital, human, and childrens’ rights organizations that have worked on these issues for over a decade, we call for immediate, meaningful action to end Big Tech’s dangerous child surveillance practices without harming those we seek to protect, compromising encryption and privacy, or further entrenching Big Tech’s monopoly power.
It’s time to draw a line in the sand. Our children’s rights are not for sale. If we want to protect children from Big Tech’s invasive and manipulative business practices, we must do the following:
- Ban addictive and manipulative app features. Tech companies purposefully entrap children. Features like YouTube autoplay, Facebook suggested groups and content, and Snapchat streaks are designed to keep vulnerable users like kids watching, getting them addicted to platforms’ content—even harmful content—in order to maximize profits and ensnare their next generation of users. This sort of nontransparent, manipulative, algorithmic amplification that cannot be controlled by the users or parents themselves has undermined our democracy as well as our children’s safety and mental health online.
- Ban micro-targeted advertising. We must put an end to voyeuristic advertising practices, in which companies like Facebook and Google build a data-based profile using young users’ private information, vulnerabilities, and curiosities. They capitalize on this spying to create manipulative, “micro-targeted” ads that undermine kids’ self confidence and harm their mental health—such as diet pills targeted to children who engage with content from thin celebrities.
- Limit data collection itself. In order to protect kids online, we need to reduce the amount of data that Big Tech companies are allowed to collect on them—not increase it. We recognize that some apps and platforms will always be inappropriate for kids, and tech companies have a responsibility to keep kids safe from harm. We also recognize that kids under 13 regularly pose as older teens and adults to use services like Instagram, TikTok, and YouTube and are encouraged to do so by these very platforms. Any movement toward protecting children online requires data privacy as a fundamental value to protect all of us. We must drastically change the amount and kinds of user data all internet companies are allowed to collect, retain, and share.
- Ban biometric stalkerware & data collection. Tech companies are creating a society that normalizes spying on children. The same tools that allow stalkers to spy on victims are becoming widespread in digital learning and in other aspects of children’s lives. The invasive and easily hacked products being trained on school kids include e-proctoring, facial recognition in the classroom, emotional surveillance, attention tracking, and more. These tools often collect biometric data with the intent of extracting information and manipulating kids based not only on how they use the internet, but on what they do “offline.” Cameras are everywhere in kids’ lives—home, school, and activities. It is impossible to tell who is watching, and for what reasons. Even family-marketed products like Amazon Ring and Fitbit track kids’ daily walks to school, creating vulnerable databases of kid’s routines & physical characteristics. For their own safety, it is time to stop freely collecting kids’ biometric data and shut down data-stalking of our kids.
We stand ready to engage with the broad and diverse coalition that is coming together around this long-neglected issue of utmost importance—the health and safety of our kids in the digital age.