Will the U.S. Look to Europe as a Guide to Protect Kids Online?

Just days after releasing a headline-grabbing study showing the ‘kids aren’t alright,’ when it comes to their online safety, the European Union has initiated a new, strict set of rules for social network sites. Could the United States be far behind? Should America’s leaders follow suit?

Just days after releasing a headline-grabbing study showing the ‘kids aren’t alright,’ when it comes to their online safety, the European Union has initiated a new, strict set of rules for social network sites.  Could the United States be far behind?  Should America’s leaders follow suit?

The Commission adopted its tough stance after a survey found that an increasing number of children were bypassing social network age limits to set up their accounts. The survey was funded by the Commission and published by the EUKidsOnline network.

The survey also found that one quarter of the 77 percent of 13-16 year olds and 38 percent of 9-12 year olds in the EU with a social media profile have their profile set to public.

The updates to the Safer Social Networking Principles released this week by the EU were described as “self-regulatory guidelines” that social network companies can adopt to meet EU safety standards for protecting minors.

They call for social network sites to ensure that children’s profiles are visible only to the child’s friends and cannot be found on a search engine.

The sites must also agree to provide clear guidance for children to adapt the site’s privacy settings, a reaction to the survey’s findings that at least 20 percent of teenagers and more than 40 percent of tweens did not know how to control their privacy settings.

The Principles further call for social networks to agree to “limit exposure that children have to age-appropriate content and delete under-age users from their service.”

More than 17 major Internet companies signed on to the guidelines when they were first released by the EU in 2009, and the Commission plans to soon publish an evaluation of how the guidelines have been implement.

The European Commission’s release of the updated principles came on the same day of a report by the United Kingdom’s media regulator, OFCOM, that found children’s online activity has increased in the past year, and their knowledge has surpassed that of their parents.

OFCOM’s media literacy survey found that nearly half of parents think their children, aged between 5 and 15, know more about the Internet than they do, while the rise in access to the Internet among children ages 12-15 grew more than 10 percentage points in just two years.

The release also comes as Americans across the pond continue to struggle over how to balance consumer and commercial rights with consumers’ privacy, especially children.

No fewer than seven bills related to online privacy are circulating now in Congress, with some devoted to children’s privacy alone.

There is also an increasingly crowded, and competitive, market in the U.S. for social network sites targeted just at children, a response to the spate of privacy breaches on sites like Facebook and Twitter as well as the growing concerns of parents and consumers of all ages.

European-based, kids-only sites are already experimenting with new technology and Web designs, so how long until they cross the pond to the U.S.?  And which will, or should, come first – the new technologies, or new regulations?

Tell us what you think.