CSUN Prof Offers Tech Companies, Parents Possible Solution for Protecting Kids’ Privacy Online

A new paper by CSUN marketing professor Kristen Walker suggests empowering children to protect their data and privacy online. Photo by fizkes, iStock.

A new paper by CSUN marketing professor Kristen Walker suggests empowering children to protect their data and privacy online. Photo by fizkes, iStock.

How do we protect our kids’ data and privacy in an increasingly online world? Tech officials claim the responsibility lies with parents. Parents, in turn, say they are often overwhelmed or unaware of the hundreds of ways their children’s privacy and data can be breached.

As federal regulators begin to crack down on tech companies such as YouTube, that have accessed and shared data from underage users, California State University, Northridge marketing professor Kristen Walker found one solution that lies in empowering children to protect their data and privacy online.

Kristen Walker

Kristen Walker

“There is no easy answer to the question of how we protect our kids’ data and privacy online,” said Walker, who teaches in CSUN’s David Nazarian College of Business and Economics. “But there are things that we can do to empower our kids and educate them into taking those steps — steps we all should be taking — to ensure that they don’t share information inadvertently, or leave themselves vulnerable while they are online or using an app on their phone.

“The key is education,” she continued. “But, like a lot of lessons, if you make it too hard, they aren’t going to pay attention.”

Walker co-authored with Marquette University marketing professor Craig Andrews and Villanova University marketing professor Jeremy Kees the article, “Children and Online Privacy Protection: Empowerment from Cognitive Defense Strategies,” recently published in the Journal of Public Policy and Marketing. It highlights their research that shows once children become aware of how vulnerable their data and private information is, they are more likely to take precautionary measures.

Walker and her colleagues used a video and a questionnaire that she, fellow CSUN marketing professor Tina Kiesler and CSUN marketing students created in 2016 for a campaign by a Digital Trust Foundation grant to help young people and their parents learn how to safeguard their privacy online. Walker and her fellow researchers wanted to see if just a little education about online privacy perils would change the behaviors of children in the age-group categories: age 6-7; 8-12 and 13-15.

“The reality is, it’s very hard to set boundaries around online interactions,” Walker said. “But, as our paper indicates, once kids are aware of what happens to their information when they go online, they are more willing and able to put constraints and boundaries on the information that they are willing to share online.”

The children were divided into three groups in each age category. One group was shown a short educational video, “Be A Smart Cookie,” which highlighted online privacy perils. A second group was given a quiz with elaborate feedback based directly on the video. The feedback not only told the children whether their answers were correct, but also explained why. The third group, the control group, was not given warnings about the dangers to their online personal information.

“The quiz with feedback was more effective than the educational video, and the video was better than the control group in influencing online safety beliefs,” Walker said, adding that the findings could have policy implications.

“For years, federal, state and self-regulatory agencies, as well as companies providing websites and online services, have struggled with efforts to protect children online and their personal information,” Walker said. “But these efforts still focus on parental consent and protecting or controlling the access to information gathered by companies about and from children online. Our findings indicate that using cognitive defense strategies, such as a simple quiz with feedback or an educational video, can help empower children to protect themselves online.”

Walker noted that the study examined whether digital literacy knowledge was important for online safety, and found that the quiz, with its elaborate feedback, was more helpful for positively affecting children’s and teens online safety beliefs.

“Federal agency privacy guidelines could be offered to nudge online companies to expand online safety quizzes with feedback for children and teens in building their online safety and privacy knowledge and beliefs,” she said.

She pointed out that the current self-regulatory effort among leading advertising organizations focuses on data protection solutions, “not addressing children’s privacy knowledge specifically at this point.”

Walker noted that most apps and some online sites have “terms and agreements” that users have to “agree” to before being able to use them.

“Why couldn’t something like an elaborate quiz or the video with information about privacy safeguards be added before one can use an app or a website?” she said.

Walker pointed to the warning her daughter’s high school science teacher makes before every class involving experiments using Bunsen burners.

“Sometimes, when kids are around fire, they just think it’s cool. They don’t think about the dangers involved,” Walker said. “The fact remains, they are still developing. That’s why they are a vulnerable population and, sometimes, they need specific guidance.

“Using technology — from websites to apps on our phone — is becoming so ubiquitous in our society,” she continued. “You can order from the local fast-food restaurant and have it delivered to your home with an app. You can learn how to do just about anything by clicking on a YouTube video or searching online. We’re acting without thinking about the consequences — about what happens to our data, our personal information and, if the app or online site taps into our contacts, the personal information of our family and friends. And when we act without thinking, especially when it comes to our children, that means you are likely to run into problems later.

“Don’t forget, once this information is out there, it is out there forever, where anybody can access it with the right tools or simply buy it.”

Walker presented the paper in July at the Federal Trade Commission’s PrivacyCon 2019, an event that brings together a diverse group of stakeholders, including researchers, academics, industry representatives, consumer advocates and government regulators to discuss the latest research and trends related to consumer privacy and data security.

Policymakers were pleased to see research that provides potential solutions to the growing problem of children’s online privacy protection, Walker said.

During her panel presentation, Walker told the audience that “if the government does not take action now, it will lead to long-term problems and negative implications for consumers that will ultimately be far harder to solve.”

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