Opinion: We Have Kids on our Platform and We Comply with COPPA … Why Can’t Facebook and Zynga Figure it Out?

By Ian Goldberg of iSport360 (Manalapan)

Maybe social media and gaming companies don’t want to figure it out.

You may have seen the recent news that parents, psychologists, pediatricians and politicians are (rightly) raising holy hell as Facebook plans to launch an Instagram for kids (and thanks to Rebecca Heilweil,  of Vox and Omidyar Network, for covering this story).  If you’ve been following the news, you may also know that Congress has been investigating Google’s YouTube Kids and that Disney recently settled a lawsuit accusing the company of tracking children’s online activities without the consent of their parents.

If that’s not enough, a shocking Washington Post article reported that 50% of the children’s apps they tested violated child privacy laws.

So, what is the problem here, folks?  Why are the biggest companies on the web struggling to get this right?  It may be because they don’t want to get it right.

Social Media and Gaming Platforms Can’t Seem to Comply with COPPA

The first problem is that social media and gaming platforms have always struggled to comply with the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act of 1998 (COPPA). But the law is pretty simple:  You cannot have kids under the age of 13 on your platform without their parents’ consent.  You cannot track their use of your platform without their parents’ consent.  You cannot ask for their personally identifiable information (PII) without their parents’ consent. 

In a feeble attempt to comply, social media and gaming apps ask for a date of birth to confirm that a user is over 13. But we all know that kids under 13 can put in a false birth date so they can set up an account.  Facebook and the rest of the bunch have been criticized, sued and investigated for not doing a better job of policing this. So, do these platforms really have our kids’ backs?

The only way to get compliant is to require parents to provide explicit consent for their children to be on the platform.  This is not hard to do, but it certainly slows the growth of a platform, and that’s why the fastest-growing companies will dodge their responsibility.  So, I invite every technology CEO to join me in saying: “We built our platform with COPPA, kids’ safety and privacy in mind … and we have your kids’ backs!”

Social Media and Gaming Platforms are Open Communities, NOT Private Communities

The second problem is that social media and gaming companies, by their very nature, want their customers to connect with as many people as possible, to build their social networks, so to speak.  However, that is dangerous for kids, especially those under 13.  We don’t want our kids connecting, messaging, sharing with strangers and “new friends.”  Yet it happens all too often.

Don’t get me wrong, I love when young athletes connect deeply with lots of teammates, coaches, managers and trainers on our youth sports platform.  But there is absolutely no way that we would let outsiders join in that conversation.  We built our platform to be a virtual “Fort Knox” for kids, and the only way for a child to join is if (a) they are on their team roster and (b) if their parents provide explicit consent for them to set up an account.  And, without a doubt, no parent, player or coach on the team can invite outsiders.  The social media and gaming companies can never meet this standard.

The Safe Sport Act Raises the Bar for Child Protection

The irony in this story is that the top social media and gaming companies can’t even meet the requirements of COPPA, yet in the youth sports industry, we have to comply with COPPA plus an additional stringent level of child protection.   The Sexual Abuse and Safe Sport Authorization Act of 2017 (“Safe Sport Act”) was passed by Congress to prevent abuse, hazing, bullying and harassment and to monitor interactions between adults and amateur athletes.  

Can you imagine if the social media and gaming platforms had to meet anti-abuse or anti-bullying requirements? Or had to ensure that parents could see all of their kids’ activities?  They would fail miserably.  But we operate at a higher level of compliance because it aligns with our mission. We value the players on our platform and the relationships they have with teammates and coaches. It is worth our time and resources to ensure that they are all kept safe.

The Bottom Line:  Why Do Social Media and Gaming Companies Really Want Kids on Their Platforms?

We really should be asking ourselves: Why do these companies want our kids on their platforms?  Is it for the benefit of our kids … or the benefit of the companies?  And we know that, for social media and gaming platforms, the answer is not as wholesome and genuine as we’d like it to be.  As the founder and CEO of a youth sports platform, I ask myself that question every day. 

And, so, here is why we bring kids onto our platform:

  • To empower kids to communicate directly with coaches and teammates without relying on parents to be the messengers. (An ancient Chinese proverb explains how an overzealous parent can get in the way of a child’s development.)
  • To get kids invested in their team goals and acquire a growth mindset.
  • To nurture self-aware kids who can self-assess and digest ongoing feedback.
  • To help kids build leadership skills, and to have kids (not their parents) build a team culture.

The bottom line is, I’m a fan of Facebook, YouTube, Disney and Zynga.  And if they need help in figuring out how to provide value to parents and kids in a safe, secure and compliant way, I’m happy to offer some free guidance. They can reach me at ian@isport360.com.

Ian Goldberg Bio:

Ian Goldberg is a #girldad, volunteer coach and the founder/CEO of iSport360, a youth sports platform that keeps thousands of young athletes connected to their teammates, their coaches and their training.

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