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New Research Raises Privacy Concerns for Young Kids' and Families' Media Use

Common Sense’s latest research finds that kids’ exposure to technology has increased– as have privacy challenges faced by American families.

Common Sense's new Zero to Eight research report offers a wealth of insight for parents and policymakers who are faced with an ever-evolving media landscape. How much time are kids spending in front of screens? What kind of screens? How many still lack high-speed internet?

And while not directly addressing privacy, the report's findings nevertheless offer insight into the privacy challenges faced by young kids and families today. These are some of the big ones:

Mobile Use Is Way Up Today

Nearly all young children live in a home with some type of mobile device, and almost half of all children have their own mobile device. More than one in four kids uses a mobile device every day.

Why It Matters for Privacy: Mobile devices raise a significant number of privacy concerns. They can track geolocation constantly, providing opportunities for real-time ads (a message just as your little one gets near the ice cream shop!) and extremely detailed digital portraits of how your child lives his/her day, including what schools, doctor's offices, or other locations he/she frequents. Additionally, they are more likely to be always present, capable of recording video or audio of intimate moments.

Most Kids Use Apps, Especially Free Apps

A majority of parents have downloaded mobile apps for their kids, but only a quarter of parents have paid for apps. Higher-income parents are twice as likely to pay for apps as lower-income parents.

Why It Matters for Privacy: Apps, even kids' apps, are notorious for sucking up a lot of unnecessary information. And while free isn't always bad, as we have said before: When apps appear to be free, in reality there is often a price to pay. Sometimes this can be via in-app purchases that children don't understand and parents don't expect. Often, app users unwittingly pay with their personal information.

Smart Homes and Smart Toys Have Arrived

One in 10 kids has a smart toy, and one in 10 lives in a home with a virtual assistant. (These figures are probably underreported, as families are still making sense of this technology.) Given past cycles of tech adoption, this number should spike to a majority soon.

Why It Matters for Privacy: Smart objects raise similar privacy concerns to mobile devices, plus many more. Some are designed to be worn on the body, so they are always with a child. Some collect sensitive health information. And talking bears and home assistants, which are often cute and cuddly or come with human names, can interact directly with your children, putting kids at ease and eliciting significantly more information than a standard mobile phone. Combine this with a poor record of security, and you have a number of privacy challenges.

With even our youngest kids on tablets and phones, using free apps and playing with smart toys, it's more important than ever that we protect their privacy.

For some Common Sense ideas on how to do that, check out our report, The Kids Privacy Zone.

Ariel Fox Johnson
Ariel Fox Johnson is Senior Counsel for Global Policy at Common Sense Media, where she advocates for smart practices, policies, and rules to help all kids thrive in today’s wired world. Her work focuses on enhancing family privacy rights, strengthening students' educational privacy, and promoting robust consumer protections in the online world. She frequently advises policymakers, industry, and tech experts, and has helped develop laws on student privacy, consumer privacy, and the Internet of Things. Ariel is a graduate of Harvard College and Law School. Prior to joining Common Sense, Ariel worked on privacy, media, intellectual property, and technology matters at corporate law firms, and provided pro bono assistance to nonprofits and asylum seekers.