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New Teen Data Roadmap Seeks to Fill Gap in Kids’ Privacy Law

April 19, 2022, 11:00 AM

A group that facilitates compliance with U.S. children’s online privacy law is turning its attention to teens, with a new roadmap for how companies should consider potential risks from data collection and use.

The Teenage Privacy Program roadmap from BBB National Programs’ Center for Industry Self-Regulation urges companies to tell teens ages 13 to 17 what kind of personal information is collected or inferred about them and what privacy controls are available to them. It also calls on companies to consider measures such as defaulting to more privacy-protective settings for teens and putting guardrails around messaging or sharing content with teens.

The new framework was developed over the past year in conversation with business leaders representing consumer goods, children’s marketing, and wireless and media technology companies. It’s meant to help fill a gap in data safeguards for teens, since the federal Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act only covers kids under 13.

Its release comes amid a national spotlight on teens’ social media use and the impact it can have on their mental health. President Joe Biden raised the issue in his State of the Union speech earlier this year after former Facebook employee Frances Haugen leaked internal documents showing the company was aware of social media’s negative impacts on children.

One of the nonprofit’s initial challenges in outlining the new privacy framework was thinking beyond existing definitions of child-directed platforms to consider what it means for an online product to be geared toward a teen audience, according to Dona Fraser, senior vice president of privacy initiatives at BBB National Programs.

“Teens go where adults go,” said Fraser, who led the framework’s development. “They don’t want to be where the kids are. Every child wants to age up.”

Self-Regulation

Children’s advocates are concerned that social media companies use addictive design choices that keep kids on the apps and expose them to potentially harmful content, such as posts that may encourage eating disorders. Concerns about data usage also extend to gaming apps and other online services that teens frequent.

Apps for teenagers tend to have more third-party trackers and make more data requests than those targeting general audiences, raising privacy concerns, according to a BBB National Programs study.

Social media platforms including TikTok and Facebook have tightened privacy controls for teenagers as they feel policy pressure over protections for younger users. Tech companies are likely acting in response to the U.K.'s new design standards for children’s privacy that cover users of online services who are under age 18.

U.S. lawmakers also have proposed raising the protected age in children’s privacy law to include teens. The teen privacy framework from BBB National Programs is intended to show legislators how industry could self-regulate in this space, Fraser said.

The group’s Children’s Advertising Review Unit acts as a safe harbor program for companies subject to the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act, which gives parents control over what information online platforms can collect about kids 12 and under.

Companies such as The Walt Disney Co., ViacomCBS Inc., and General Mills Inc. that are members of the group agree to abide by its guidelines. The group also monitors nonmember companies’ compliance and can refer cases for enforcement by the Federal Trade Commission or state attorneys general.

It remains to be seen whether a similar industry oversight structure could emerge for enforcing measures to protect teens’ data. “We haven’t yet figured out exactly what our role is with regards to regulating compliance,” Fraser said.

To contact the reporter on this story: Andrea Vittorio in Washington at avittorio@bloomberglaw.com

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Tonia Moore at tmoore@bloombergindustry.com; Jay-Anne B. Casuga at jcasuga@bloomberglaw.com