Thu. Mar 23rd, 2023

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Technology companies already know all about you and your family, including your location, interests and other demographic details. But recently, they have been asking a question that can feel a little too personal. Streaming services, games and social media companies want to know young children’s birth dates.
When Disney Plus started demanding that existing users enter their children’s exact birth date to continue streaming, many parents were alarmed. The app often knows a child is watching thanks to built-in settings that let you set up profiles for kids.
Families are faced with a hard choice: share a sensitive piece of information about their child, lie or find a new way to watch “Bluey.”
“It makes me uncomfortable, and obviously my children cannot consent to that profile being created,” said Dan Raile, a stay-at-home parent in San Francisco.
Raile uses Disney Plus with his two kids, 4 and 2, but he hasn’t seen the prompt yet — Disney is still rolling it out to all users. When he does get it, he plans to either enter a fake date or find another way to stream. “I would figure out what way I could use this app without creating a profile that uses my child’s birthday.”
The company declined to comment on the policy, but it pointed to its explanation here.
In the past, most apps and services asked you to confirm you were over a certain age — typically 13 in the United States — when creating a new account, but not give a birth date.
Now, more tech companies are trying to confirm the exact ages of their users, including those who are under 18. In addition to streaming services like Google’s YouTube and Disney Plus, social media companies including Instagram and various games and services have been asking for birth dates.
There is no law requiring that any tech company have a birth date or exact age for adult or child users, but regulations in the United Kingdom and some coming to California will push for more privacy protections based on age.
“There is more legal requirement to treat people in age-appropriate ways, and to do that correctly, you need to have a pretty good idea of how old someone is,” said Josh Golin, executive director at Fairplay, a nonprofit children’s safety group.
Instagram also has been working on age verification, experimenting with options such as AI and video selfies. The company started requiring a birth date for new users in 2019, and it began asking existing users for the detail in 2021. The company said it collects the information to provide age-appropriate experiences for users under 18. Instagram has added safety and privacy features specifically for minors, and in the past, it has even pitched launching a version of Instagram for children under 13.
Most recently, it stopped using past engagement on the apps to target ads. Instagram is also adding tools to let teens opt out of some ad categories and will no longer let advertisers target younger users based on gender.
There are reasons parents may want apps to know their children are, in fact, children. There are legal limits on what tech companies can do with data for children under 13 in the United States, and there are a few lesser protections for children under 18. The companies themselves may also filter explicit or other inappropriate content for minors by default.
Google, which owns YouTube and YouTube Kids, also switched to asking for a birth date when users first sign up. And it prompts existing users to add the information on older accounts. The company said it wants to confirm that people are at least 13 and that it has additional default content protections and privacy settings for any users under 18.
A birth date is considered a piece of personal identifying information, which can be used to identify an individual. For most adults online, this type of information is already available, but most children don’t have big online footprints yet. Many parents, wary of their children’s information being used for anything from marketing to identify theft, are reluctant to hand over the date to tech companies.
Tech companies can also use age information for marketing, ad targeting and other business reasons unrelated to legal requirements. Disney Plus, for example, says it can use the information to personalize content and recommendations and to deliver targeted ads. As more streaming services turn to ad-based models, the information could help them make more money.
Fairplay’s Golin doesn’t think handing over a birth date is the solution to age verification, no matter how much you trust a particular company’s motives. There is always some risk of a breach or hack, which could put a child’s profile information in the wrong hands. Companies could also use it for targeted marketing or to sell ads, as Disney Plus has said it will do.
“It’s understandable that parents feel hesitant. Companies are already collecting so much information on their users that they should be able to infer what ages they are,” said Irene Ly, policy counsel at Common Sense Media.
Not all parents are against sharing the information, within reason. Scott Melton is a parent of two young children in Kansas City, Kan., and a Disney Plus user. He hasn’t been asked for their ages yet, he said, but he would provide them.
“I would feel comfortable giving them my child’s birthday,” said Melton, who works in e-commerce. “I feel like the upsides outweigh the downsides — there would be better recommendations on the app homepage, and frankly there’s a lot more personally identifying info that could be damaging than just a birth date.”
The solution, if you’re comfortable, could be to lie, some experts said. But just a little.
“Generally, lie but with some caveats,” said Hayley Tsukayama, a senior legislative activist at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a digital civil liberties group.
She recommended entering your child’s birthday as a month earlier or a month later so the general age is the same, but it would be inaccurate data if it fell into the wrong hands.
“It’s a shame because we should be able to trust that these platforms are only collecting our child’s birthday and using it for exactly the reason [they say]. But we can’t really trust that, so I think lying is okay,” Golin said.
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