At an age when his parents won’t let him go to the mall alone and in an era when he would never open up to a stranger, Fitzsimones, who lives in Phoenix, already has a growing dossier accumulating on the Web. And while Congress has passed laws to protect the youngest of Internet users from sharing much information about themselves, once those children become teens, the same privacy rules no longer apply.
“It’s the Wild West for teens when it comes to privacy online,” said Kathryn Montgomery, a privacy advocate and communications professor at American University.
The federal government has a history of regulating media to protect children under age 12. Examples are the 1998 children’s Internet privacy law and television advertising limits that were set for broadcasters and cable networks in 1990. And recent problems with Internet privacy and security — such as last week’s breaches at Sony’s online gaming network — have led to renewed calls for regulations to protect consumers. For the first time, the White House has called for Internet privacy rules.
But experts on adolescent development say youths between 13 and 18 deserve special attention. Reps. Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.) and Joe Barton (R-Tex.) said last week they are working on a bill to limit the collection of personal information about teens and prevent targeted marketing to them.
Adolescents are among the most voracious and precocious users of new mobile Internet services, constantly making grown-up decisions with grown-up consequences, experts say. But, according to Montgomery, “Their ability to make decisions is still forming and clearly different from that of adults.”
‘I never say no’
With few restraints, teens are creating digital records that also shape their reputations offline. All the status updates, tweets and check-ins to specific locations can be reviewed by prospective employers, insurance companies and colleges.
Web firms say sensitive data can be collected only with permission and that parents can set controls on phones and desktop computers to help keep teens out of the public eye. But for teens like Fitzsimones, the opportunities to share information online are so frequent and routine that they hardly even stop to think about them.
The first time he was asked to share his location on the game Pocket God, the seventh-grader paused for a moment to consider why the company would want to know his whereabouts.
But he feared that if he didn’t agree, his experience on the app would be limited, and Fitzsimones wanted to get started on his cartoon pygmy adventure on Oog Island. So he tapped “okay,” feeling comfort in the masses; his friends, after all, were using the app and never complained.