The COVID-19 pandemic has forced K-12 students to move to distance and hybrid learning, which has placed a bright spotlight on the need for modern Federal regulation to protect children, and their data, online.

During a House Energy and Commerce Committee hearing today, witnesses highlighted the increased risk children face online and stressed the need to regulate companies that interact with children, especially in an educational setting. Committee Chairman Frank Pallone, D-N.J., cited research findings that children’s screen time has doubled during the pandemic in part because of increased distance and hybrid learning.

The hearing also covered a few primary concerns regarding children’s online experiences, including data and personal information privacy, exposure to ads, and in-app purchases.

While many school districts have created rules regarding what type of information online apps and other edtech can collect from students, witnesses said stronger Federal regulation was needed.

“Widespread data collection and privacy concerns for children are among the most pervasive threats facing children and teens today, and the growing use of artificial intelligence and machine learning may further compromise young people’s privacy through novel data collection and analysis processes that are not yet widely understood,” said Dr. Nusheen Ameenuddin, chair of the American Academy of Pediatrics Council on Communications and Media.

During distance learning, many teachers have used YouTube videos as part of their lesson plans. While witnesses recognized the potential benefits of educational videos, they also raised a red flag on the ads presented to kids on YouTube.

“Ads are pervasive,” said Ariel Fox Johnson, senior counsel for global policy for Common Sense Media. Johnson cited recent Common Sense research which found that advertising is included in 95 percent of early childhood videos.

“Ad design in these videos was often problematic, such as banner ads that blocked educational content, sidebar ads that could be confused for recommended videos, or ads for video games that showed doctored versions of popular characters, such as Peppa Pig,” Johnson said.

Both legislators and witnesses touched on the issue of in-app purchases. Namely, they focused on apps pressuring children to spend money without needing the knowledge or approval of parents.

However, the pressure for in-app purchases is not limited to “fun” apps, but is also seen in apps used by schools. Ameenuddin explained that “during the pandemic, education technology companies have incorporated in-app purchases in school-sanctioned educational games assigned as part of the virtual curriculum. She continued to explain that even though these apps are advertised to schools as free to use, they encourage students to pay for game upgrades to access additional game features or to advance in the game.

Ameenuddin cited one example that ended in a Federal Trade Commission complaint. “In one instance, a math-oriented game was documented to have 16 unique advertisements for membership and only four math problems over 19 minutes of gameplay … Students were told they could ‘have more fun’ or get ‘better pets’ in the game if they paid up. Such exploitative tactics prey on children.”

Turning to what the Federal government needs to do, Johnson called on Congress to expand the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA). She explained that currently, COPPA stops providing protections once a child turns 13.

Johnson urged Congress to pass the PRIVCY Act, which she says would “address many of COPPA’s shortcomings,” including “preventing sites from turning a blind eye to young people using their services, offering special protections to and empowering teens to make decisions for themselves, emphasizing the importance of age-appropriate controls and language, and providing bright-line rules prohibiting certain particularly problematic practices like behavioral marketing to young children.”

In addition to increasing regulations – including outright bans on advertising to especially young children – Ameenuddin called on Congress to take further action.

Ameenuddin said Congress should also fund digital literacy curricula in schools to “ensure that children and teens are equipped with the skills they need to navigate an increasingly complex digital ecosystem.” As with every hearing that touches on distance and hybrid learning, Ameenuddin said Congress needs to also fund efforts to promote digital equity by expanding access to broadband internet and devices, “while also targeting digital media practices and marketing tactics that disproportionately impact youth of color.”

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