Deerfield Elementary School students meet with Sen. Edward Markey via Zoom on April 8, 2024

Communication Department Facilitates Conversation on Children’s Online Privacy with Sen. Markey, Deerfield Elementary School

NEWS Erica Scharrer
Erica Scharrer 

As part of a community-engaged research partnership spanning over two decades, Professor of Communication Erica Scharrer and doctoral students Michelle Ciccone and Cecilia Zhou arranged for sixth graders from Deerfield Elementary School to meet virtually with U.S. Sen. Edward Markey and his staffers on April 8 to discuss children’s online privacy. The discussion focused on the proposed Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA) 2.0, which seeks to strengthen protections related to online collection, use and disclosure of the personal information of children and teenagers.

Scharrer and her team of researchers have created lesson plans for the sixth graders detailing how data is collected online and used to serve internet users targeted ads. The lessons include an introduction to the current COPPA legislation from 1998 as well as the proposed changes under COPPA 2.0. The Zoom meeting with Sen. Markey provided students with an opportunity to learn more about these policies, ask questions and share their experiences, concerns and opinions.

Deerfield Elementary students meet with Sen. Markey via Zoom on April 8, 2024
Deerfield Elementary students meet with Sen. Markey via Zoom on April 8, 2024

“Kids in this age group are spending a lot of time with media, increasingly without a parent or caregiver looking over their shoulder and developing their capacity to be critical and analytical in general and including about media and technology,” says Scharrer, whose research focuses on children, adolescents and the media. “[G]iving them information from the latest research, bringing in public policy angles like the COPPA legislation, leading them in media critiques and discussion questions and exercises, I hope, develops their use of a critical lens when spending time with media.”

The research team plans to return to Deerfield Elementary at least three more times this semester to help the 11- and 12-year-olds understand how our data is collected online and used for marketing purposes, and to facilitate their thinking about the ethics of these practices. The sixth graders will also be creating infographics, posters or brochures on data privacy and personalized online ads to demonstrate what they have learned and to inform others.

Scharrer, Ciccone and Zhou will study class discussions and students’ responses to written prompts and activities to inform their research on youths’ opinions and knowledge about online privacy and how their curriculum advances critical thinking. Ultimately, they hope to present their findings at major conferences and submit their research for publication later this year.

Other members of the UMass team include doctoral students Valentina Paskar, Janet Chon and Gopa Caesar and students from Scharrer’s class on children, teens and media. Previously, Scharrer and her students have developed classroom lesson plans for sixth graders on violence in the media, stereotypes, news framing and commercialism.