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What You Should Know About Those Apps Your Kids Want to Download

Gaming apps. Educational apps. Book apps. Parents have lots of categories to choose from when picking apps for kids these days, but none of these categories focuses on what parents should pay attention to most when letting their kids play and learn online: privacy.

Columns appearing on the service and this webpage represent the views of the authors, not of The University of Texas at Austin.

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Gaming apps. Educational apps. Book apps. Parents have lots of categories to choose from when picking apps for kids these days, but none of these categories focuses on what parents should pay attention to most when letting their kids play and learn online: privacy.

A recent report by the Federal Trade Commission showed that close to 60 percent of apps designed for children collect and share personal information and only 11 percent tell you they are doing so.

Apps collect information about online behavior, log purchase preferences, track locations and link to social media. Mobile apps and the information they gather help define our children’s virtual selves.

These personas are permanent and useful to all kinds of companies, including advertising agencies, credit reporting agencies, insurance companies and future employers. But at the Center for Identity at The University of Texas at Austin, we see every day that in the hands of an identity thief or other real-world criminal, apps can be a powerful tool to gain sensitive information about your child and family, including your child’s physical location, date of birth, your own usernames and passwords, and, once you link a credit card to an app, your financial information.

The Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA) provides some measure of protection against invasion of privacy for kids under the age of 13. Under the law, mobile apps must get parental permission to collect, use or disclose a child’s information. The FTC and state consumer protection agencies bring suits and leverage fines against app developers that fail to live up to the law’s requirements.

However, those protections disappear when children turn 13 despite the fact that the threats to their privacy, and their interest in mobile apps and social media, are growing quickly at that age.

So what should we do? First and foremost, we must demand transparency from app developers and distributors. It is imperative that those who are collecting and profiting from the data our children provide be honest and up-front about how, when and why they are collecting data, and how they plan to protect it.

Parents must use apps that state their privacy policies clearly, and they must read those policies to be sure that any requests from an app for data such as contact information, email address or location match up with the privacy policy for the app. If they don’t, you should contact the FTC or your state’s consumer protection agency.

Lawmakers should pass the recently filed Do Not Track Kids Act, which would extend the protections that COPPA offers to include children through the age of 16. The legislation also includes requirements for an “eraser button,” allowing teens to remove information they have posted from the online world.

But while all of this will help, it falls at the parents’ feet to teach their kids common sense rules about app use. Parents should talk to their kids about general privacy protection for any online interaction. Remind them that any time they choose to share information, that choice is permanent.

Parents should monitor downloaded apps to make sure they are from trusted sources, and update apps regularly to ensure the most secure versions. This reduces the risk that apps will contain malware, reducing the threat to kids private information and their parents’ wallets.

Parents should also use the devices’ settings to limit the data that apps can access, and clear their devices of all apps and personal information before they get rid of them.

Communication and education are key. By providing reasonable guidelines for app use to kids, parents can help teach their children the awareness and skills they will need to protect their privacy throughout their digital lifetimes.

Katie Stephens is the education program manager at the Center for Identity at the University of Texas at Austin. She develops education programs, classroom curriculum and interactive learning tools for the Center for Identity’s public resource center on identity theft, management and privacy.

A version of this op-ed appeared in the Dallas Morning News and Austin American Statesman

To view more op-eds from Texas Perspectives, click here.

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Texas Perspectives is a wire-style service produced by The University of Texas at Austin that is intended to provide media outlets with meaningful and thoughtful opinion columns (op-eds) on a variety of topics and current events. Authors are faculty members and staffers at UT Austin who work with University Communications to craft columns that adhere to journalistic best practices and Associated Press style guidelines. The University of Texas at Austin offers these opinion articles for publication at no charge. Columns appearing on the service and this webpage represent the views of the authors, not of The University of Texas at Austin.

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