Why Parents Help Their Children Lie to Facebook about Age: Unintended Consequences of the "Children's Online Privacy Protection Act"

Authors: danah boyd, Eszter Hargittai, Jason Schultz, John Palfrey

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Citation: boyd, d., Hargittai, E., Schultz, J. & Palfrey, J. (2011). Why Parents Help Their Children Lie to Facebook about Age: Unintended Consequences of the "Children's Online Privacy Protection Act". First Monday. 16(11)


Facebook, like many communication services and social media sites, uses its Terms of Service (ToS) to forbid children under the age of 13 from creating an account. Such prohibitions are not uncommon in response to the Children's Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA), which seeks to empower parents by requiring commercial Web site operators to obtain parental consent before collecting data from children under 13. Given economic costs, social concerns, and technical issues, most general-purpose sites opt to restrict underage access through their ToS. Yet in spite of such restrictions, research suggests that millions of underage users circumvent this rule and sign up for accounts on Facebook. Given strong evidence of parental concern about children's online activity, this raises questions of whether or not parents understand ToS restrictions for children, how they view children's practices of circumventing age restrictions, and how they feel about children's acccess being regulated. In this paper, we provide survey data that show that many parents know that their underage children are on Facebook in violation of the site's restrictions and that they are often complicit in helping their children join the site. Our data suggest that, by creating a context in which companies choose to restrict access to children, COPPA inadvertently undermines parents' ability to make choices and protect their children's data. Our data have significant implications for policy-makers, particularly in light of ongoing discussions surrounding COPPA and other age-based privacy laws.


  • Introduction
  • Background on the Children's Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA)
  • Research questions
  • Data and methods
  • Results: Parental practices and attitudes
  • Discussion: The efficacy of COPPA
  • Conclusion


This project was supported by Microsoft Research. Its findings are solely the responsibility of the authors and do not necessarily represent the official views of Microsoft.

We would like to thank Maria Yarolin and Dana Markow from Harris Interactive for their tremendous help in survey design, implementation, and analysis. We are deeply indebted to Amanda Lenhart, Michele Ybarra, and Alex Leavitt for their extensive help at every stage of this project. We would also like to thank Charisse Corsbie–Massay, Kate Crawford, Jonathan Donner, Nicole Ellison, Bernie Hogan, Chris Hoofnagle, Jen King, Jo Korchmaros, Eden Litt, Sonia Livingstone, Mary Madden, Deirdre Mulligan, Irina Shklovski, Fred Stutzman, and Sarita Yardi for their help in designing the survey instrument and providing critical feedback. We are also are grateful for the numerous other scholars and critics who advised us on everything from survey design to statistical analysis including, and especially, those at Microsoft Research and Harvard’s Berkman Center. Finally, we are deeply grateful to First Monday’s anonymous reviewers who provided critical feedback and to Ed Valauskas — First Monday’s chief editor — for shepherding this paper through at a record speed.

This project was truly a large–scale collaboration and we are deeply appreciative of all who helped make it stronger.

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