Online Buyer's Guide

Marketing to Children

There are growing numbers of children online. According to a recent report, some 16 million young people under age 18 are online, and over 6 million of these are children aged 12 and under.

Children, like adults, are online visiting stores–as well as using email, game software, chat systems, and message boards. But, unlike adults, children often don't know how to recognize unsafe situations or invalid claims. Children are surprisingly susceptible to things that blink or are animated, look like games, can be personalized, or "do something" or even simply say "click here." Some unscrupulous Internet companies exploit children's trusting nature by enticing them to share private information. Children need help with their privacy and security online. If parents decide to allow their children to use the Internet to buy online, they should make sure their children understand how to use and make purchases safely and responsibly.


Children's Online Privacy Protection Act of 1998 (COPPA)

A recent law, the Children's Online Privacy Protection Act of 1998 (COPPA), went into effect on April 21, 2000. This law requires certain commercial web sites to post a privacy policy, obtain verifiable parental consent for a child's information to be submitted online, and offer options regarding disclosure of that information to third parties. The act allows civil penalties for violations.


In planning this law, Congress established in October 1998 the Child Online Protection Act (COPA) Commission "to study methods to help reduce access by minors to certain sexually explicit material, defined in the statute as harmful to minors." The Commission recently issued a report that recommends steps to assist in empowering and educating the public, in law enforcement, and in industry self-regulation. Under public education, their recommendations include a campaign to promote public awareness of technologies and methods available to protect children online, and promotion of Acceptable Use policies. "Consumer Empowerment" efforts include allocating resources for independent evaluation of child-protection technologies; improvement of industry mechanisms; a private-sector conversation "on the development of next-generation systems for labeling, rating, and identifying content reflecting the convergence of old and new media;" and our government's encouragement of the use of these technologies.


While NetAction agrees in principle with the Commission's findings, we encourage a more hands-on approach, as described below.

What Parents Can Do

Supervise your children's use of your credit card, and/or fund a pre-paid account for their use. Guide them through a basic budget so they know where their online finances stand.

Teach children to think carefully about what they read online so they can:

Teach children to recognize when they are being asked for personal information and to refuse requests for personal information unless they first obtain your permission. You should also discuss with your child the implications of supplying false information.

Make it a rule that your children get permission from you before registering on a site, signing up for a contest, asking for a pen pal, responding to a poll, survey, questionnaire, or application, signing a guest book, or giving out any personal information.

Explain to your children why they should never divulge personal information publicly in chat rooms or message boards, or privately in email, without first asking for your permission.

Investigate the "parental control" features on private membership sites so you know what content they exclude. Filters differ widely in their identification of harmful material. Their priorities affect their ability to discriminate, for example, between pornography and legitimate medical reference materials.

If you are considering using any parental control tools, do your own research and only use those tools that are suited to your needs. These include:

Talk to your children about what they may see on the web, whether or not they are using filtering or other parental control programs. Make sure your children know that you have concerns about some of what they might see online. Explain that many web tools do not block alcohol and tobacco sites and advertisements.

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