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Keeping Kids Safe Online: Algorithms and Tracking

Kids are online, we must make it a safer environment for them

by the Iowa Attorney General’s Office

Whether for school, connection or fun, children are spending more time online than ever before. While that time can be productive, helping to grow their knowledge of the world, it can also be detrimental, especially to the mental health of young children.

The Iowa Attorney General’s Office has become increasingly concerned about the role social media companies and their algorithms play in the lives of children.

“Children explore and test the bounds of technology. Ensuring they do so safely is what we must dedicate our time to now,” Iowa Attorney General Tom Miller said. “Whether that be investigations into social media platforms and their efforts to engage children or providing parents and educators with tools, we must put children first.”

In November 2021, AG Miller joined other attorneys general in an investigation into Meta Platforms (formerly Facebook) for providing and promoting Instagram to children and young adults despite knowing that such use is associated with physical and mental health harms. In March 2022, Miller joined a bipartisan group of AGs to investigate TikTok for similar issues. The group looks to determine whether the company violated state consumer protection laws that put the public at risk.

While those investigations continue, Miller has made the topic of internet safety for children a focal point during his one-year tenure as president of the National Association of Attorneys General and his presidential initiative, Consumer Protection 2.0: Tech Threats and Tools. The topic recently took center stage at the NAAG Presidential Summit in Des Moines, where several panels touched on how children are affected by technology and what advocates and attorneys general are doing to make the online world a little safer.

Tech isn’t going away  

“Kids are tech savvy, and they are going to do things,” Noah Phillips, Federal Trade Commissioner, said during a fireside chat at the Presidential Summit. “If your stance is we should ban kids from the internet, good luck.”

A recent report from Common Sense Media found that in 2021, children 8 to 12 years of age spent an average of about 5.5 hours a day online, while those 13 to 18 are online 8.5 hours per day, on average. Much of that time is spent scrolling social media.

Common Sense Media found that one in five children ages 8 to 12 use social media every day, while teens age 13 to 18 spend nearly an hour and a half each day on social platforms. Facebook, Instagram, and Snapchat are the top social platforms for both age groups.

With hours of their day spent online, it’s now crucial that we turn our efforts toward education, for parents, educators and children.

Knowing your tech  

Frances Haugen, who worked as a product manager for Facebook and became a whistleblower in late 2021, has claimed the company prioritizes profits over public safety.  She has focused on the impact of Meta’s services on the mental health of children and young adults.

During her keynote address at the Presidential Summit, Haugen discussed the algorithms used on platforms like Instagram, which she claims can be detrimental to children’s mental health, particularly that of teen girls. For instance, Meta uses an engagement ranking that promotes content related to anorexia or disordered eating for users seeking an innocuous topic like healthy recipes, she said. Haugen said young users should be able to prevent such content from following them and “reset the model without losing their friends.”

Haugen called for transparency and accountability in social media, allowing parents to know exactly how their children are being tracked and how content is being targeted toward them.

“What would social media look like if we designed it to respect autonomy and dignity?” she asked.

For example, the technology exists to make Instagram feeds go slower as bedtime approaches, Haugen said, citing social media’s damaging effect on kids’ sleep.

The way in which algorithms are used has concerned attorneys general in recent years. As part of the November 2021 nationwide investigation into Meta and Instagram, Miller and other AGs are looking into the techniques used by the companies to increase the frequency and duration of engagement by young users and the resulting harms caused by such extended engagement.

Josh Golin, executive director for Fairplay, reiterated many of Haugen’s concerns, adding that the collection of data for children is astronomical.

Citing a report by SuperAwesome, a London-based company that helps app developers navigate child-privacy laws, Golin said that advertisers have more than 72 million data points about a child by age 13.

“Platforms use this data to keep kids online and on their platforms,” he said. “They deliver content to keep kids online. That means more tracking, and that means delivering more personalized ads. It’s a circle.”

Financial gains  

In addition to tracking children’s activity to tailor content, social media and other digital companies use what they know about kids to earn money.

“All harms are linked to the business model. Most content kids are consuming are veiled ads,” Golin said. “The influencer culture makes kids feel bad about themselves and then there’s monetization in gaming. It’s creating inequity with kids.”

Golin pointed to games like prodigy and FIFA 2022, that require in-app purchases for the user to gain access to new levels, certain players or activities.

“We found that in FIFA 2022, in order to get the best player, you’d have to spend $13,500,” Golin said. “Of course, you could play to get free points, but that would take three years.”

What you can do 

Although we have more to learn about the ways in which social media platforms track users, including children, parents can reduce risks through these practices:

  • Keep your child’s technology in a public place.

  • Research the apps and sites your child would like to view.

  • Read the privacy policies for the sites, games and apps your child uses.

  • Check your smartphone settings; turn off location services and ad personalization.

  • Adjust the privacy settings on your preferred internet browser.

  • The Federal Trade Commission suggests that smartphone users learn their devices’ tracking control program. For instance, Apple introduced a tracking control setting that requires app developers to ask for permission before they track your activity across apps or websites. As you use an app, you may see a notice asking if you want to allow the app to track your activity. If you decline, the app can’t access your device’s advertising identifier.

  • Maintain open communication with your child.

  • Be aware of changes in your child’s behavior that may indicate a problem with online use. Assure your child knows they cannot be anonymous on the internet.

  • Talk to your child about information that should never be posted online, as well as the dangers of posting too much personal information.

  • Engage your child in continuous conversations about what they see online.

  • Set clear boundaries regarding the consequences of misusing the internet and apps. If you allow your child to access this technology, do not threaten to remove it as a punishment. This could prevent them from approaching you in the future about online problems.


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