Tuesday 13 May 2014

Cybersafety in school #FAIL

My daughter had a visit at school yesterday by a cybersafety "expert" who is quite well known in Australia - and came home panicked that she would end up in jail because she was told "it's against the law to have social apps or Kik unless you're 13 or 17".

This is incorrect. In fact, this is so incorrect I'm a little irritated. Here's why.

First - there is NO Australian law that specifies any age limitations for the use of apps or creating accounts. The closest thing we have is the ratings system, which are only recommendations until M15+ and higher.

The "13" thing has come about because of COPPA, the Children's Online Privacy Protection Act, which is a U.S. law based around personal data collection by organisations and which applies only to those under U.S. jurisdiction. The intent is to gain parental permission before collecting data (which is usually fairly impossible to do). I have no idea why "13" was chosen as the magic number, but there it is.

Most organisations have Terms of Service for using their product and/or site. Because of COPPA, U.S.-based organisations (or organisations that may collect the personal data of U.S. citizens) need to include the "13" requirement in their Terms of Service, which gives them the right to terminate an account if their Terms are breached. Fair enough. The organisation can be prosecuted if they don't do this. However, in 99.9% of cases, this doesn't happen (either the terminating, or the prosecuting).
Next, "17". On iTunes, Kik does indeed have a rating of "17+". On Google Play, it's "Medium Maturity". But the Terms of Service on Kik's own website states "You must be at least 13 years old to use any Site or Product, and if you are 13-18 years old, you may only use a Site or Product if your parent or guardian consents to this Agreement on your behalf." Okkaaaayyy... so "13" again, care of COPPA and... "17" anyone? (hello, Apple?!).

Lastly, and actually the thing that irritated me the most, is that the overriding message my daughter came home with was not about cybersafety or cyberbullying (both of which I would have applauded) - but fear, that police would pull up outside the house and arrest her! One of the 2 key points she wrote on her form is that kids her age can go to jail. Yes, the "expert" actually told them this.

Now, I'm not clear on exactly which law kids would have to break to end up in jail, or of any primary-school-aged kid in any Western country that has actually gone to jail for using an app or creating an account - but I do know from a conversation with another mother this morning that my daughter wasn't the only child who went home in a panic last night thinking the police were about to swoop. There has been much deleting of apps overnight. I can't quite believe an "expert" would peddle fear like this.

Heavy-handed, fear-based teaching using draconian interpretations of law, taught in a school environment where kids take everything they are told as absolute truth, does much harm and little good. It would have been preferable for the "expert" to talk about appropriate/inappropriate use of apps/software the kids were already using, and to encourage digital literacy, rather than scaring the pants off them.

NOTHING beats education. You wouldn't tell a kid they're not allowed outside unsupervised until they're 13, then let them out the door to walk across a busy road alone, uneducated and unsupervised on their 13th birthday. Most parents start teaching road safety from a young age, continually reinforce the look-both-ways message, go out with them until they're old enough to try it themselves... Internet education should be the same.

For further reading on this topic, I recommend It's Complicated the social lives of networked teens by danah boyd, which is available free (legally) on her website. I also have some Getting Started tips for parents here that I wrote a few years ago. And thank you to Dr Tama Leaver for clarifying a few important points for me while writing this post (and reminding me what a great word 'draconian' is!).


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