Maintaining Privacy in a Sea of Selfies

Chief Community & Safety Officer,

Rebecca Newton,

Kids love to express themselves  – on their own or in a group, they thrive on self-expression.  They’ll draw, talk, sing, dance, move, build and participate in anything creative.

Where better than the online world to express themselves?  It provides a global platform for collaboration and allows even the shyest of kids to participate in digital mob merriment and, sometimes, mayhem.


Digital Self-Expression

Just what is it that kids are up to online? In a word, Selfies. In the 1980s and 90s we had ‘Glamour Shots’  (and possibly too many of them). Since the big hand hit 12am on January 1st 2000 and brought us in to the 21st century, a highly popular method of self-expression has emerged in the ‘Selfie.’ Selfies have most definitely found their place in digital posterity. On a daily basis, I witness pretty much every kid (and teen and adult and some canines) publishing a Selfie.

As an example, here’s a photo of my one-year-old grandson, who is too young to create his own Selfie, or so I assume. His siblings collaborated on the ‘Selfie’ using an app on their parents’ device, and the family posted it straightaway on Facebook. I was thrilled when it popped up in my Facebook newsfeed and grabbed within minutes. And here I am, one month later, using it in a public post. A public post about privacy, in fact. Within seconds, downloaded from Facebook by me (his ‘Grammy’), then republished by myself within a month. (Photo used by permission.)

Trust and Digital Publishing

Entertaining as the Selfie may be, there is a more serious side to instant publishing to consider. As adults we know that once we press the ‘send’ button, that’s it. We will have very little control over what we’ve just published. But kids are open books and share monsters. They have trusting hearts and trending heads  — if everyone else is doing it, they’re not going to be left standing on the sidelines watching.

Instant trust and instant publishing are very good reasons as to why privacy matters. There’s no point in trying to stop the Selfie train. It left the station a few years back. But there is a point in making sure parents of kids under 13, per the FTC’s COPPA 2.0 regulation, understand they have a choice in what, how and where their kids publish content online. The FTC requires app and site developers (who target kids or have ‘actual knowledge’ of kids using their app or site) to obtain verified parental consent (VPC) for every US citizen under 13 if the site or app collects or allows the disclosure of personally identifying information (PII) from the child. That’s the thumbnail version. If you’re desperate for legalese and much of it, you can read all about COPPA here. For the Wikipedia version, click here.


That Pesky Privacy Thing

In response to the *COPPA 2.0 verified parental consent (VPC) requirement, industry has done exactly what the FTC had hoped and developed technology to serve as the conduit between website operators and parents.

Age verification systems are possibly the “PayPal ™ solution” to a complicated regulation that has the best of intentions but has ended up creating a privacy conundrum — all in the name of protecting privacy.  That’s a subject worth 1000 blogs, another time, another place. The bottom line is, the regulation is in effect so we must find a way to work with it if we want to

  • Provide creative and fun digital apps, games and products for kids
  • Make a living doing the above

5 Minutes for Reassurance

It’s a parent or guardian’s right to understand who’s tracking your child (third party ad vendors, for instance), how they’re tracking your child (behavioral advertising), and what they’re doing with the tracked information (selling it? Pushing behavioral ads to your kids? Or, to be fair, simply nothing). Developers and web operators have a responsibility to inform a site user, regardless of their age, as to what they’re going to do with the data they collect. We should expect to receive information allowing us to make knowledgeable digital choices.  This is what the FTC wants to accomplish with the COPPA rule.

Parental consent mechanisms or systems are the most expedient way to achieve the above. We sometimes fear the unknown and withhold consent with our right hand while our left hand clicks “AGREE” without reading 12 pages of legalese.  The web industry initially experienced fear about online banking, online purchasing, PayPal and many other online systems that are now part of our every day lives (including Selfies).  The VPC systems are coming to an app or web page near you, and they’re coming soon. I think we’d all be in agreement that our children’s or grandchildren’s digital privacy is worth 5 minutes of our time giving consent to a trusted online mechanism (third party) that will collect so SO very much less information than Google, Facebook, or Amazon collects about us all day, every day.  Let’s keep our fingers crossed that industry solutions will be user-friendly, quick, and data-safe. I believe they can and will be so.

In the meantime, I’m going to Google (verb) ‘canine selfies ‘and check Facebook for my grandson’s latest sibling-generated Selfie!


Rebecca Newton is the Chief Community and Safety Officer at, a family digital entertainment company based in London, England. She lives in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, where she has been a professional musician by night for over 3 decades. She has an affinity for kids, canines and technology.

Twitter: @RebeccaNewton

Google +RebeccaNewton

Some resources on COPPA and Privacy

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