Protecting teens in the online world poses unique challenges, according to the Federal Trade Commission. It says teens are more impulsive than adults and don't think clearly about the consequences of their activities online. ((iStock))

The agency responsible for protecting consumers in the U.S. says defending the interests of teenagers in the online world presents "unique challenges."

The deputy director of consumer protection at the Federal Trade Commission laid out some of those challenges Thursday in testimony before a U.S. Congress subcommittee on consumer protection.

Jessica Rich noted 90 per cent of youth between 12 and 17 spend time online and can easily place themselves in situations that could cause trouble.

'Research shows that teens tend to be more impulsive than adults.' — Jessica Rich, Federal Trade Commission

"Research shows that teens tend to be more impulsive than adults, and they may not think as clearly as adults about the consequences of what they do," she said.

Among the examples she cited was the voluntary disclosure of information and personal details, which could leave teens vulnerable to identity theft.

"They may also share details that could adversely affect their potential employment or college admissions," Rich said.

She also pointed to "sexting," the practice of using one's cellphone to send messages and images with sexual content, as a problematic area.

A Pew research study recently revealed that four per cent of cellphone owners between 12 and 17 had sent sexually suggestive images of themselves by phone; 15 per cent had received sexual images of someone they knew.

"The Commission seeks to address these privacy concerns — as well as parents' concerns about their teens' online behavior and interactions — through education, policy development and law enforcement," she told the committee.

Canadian court finds in favour or protecting kids

While Rich's testimony centred on consumer-related issues such as privacy, a related issue facing teens and parents in Canada and the U.S. — sexual exploitation of teens — played out in the Supreme Court of Canada.

The court upheld a decision by the Alberta Court of Appeal convicting Michell Rayal Levigne on child luring charges.

The Edmonton man tried to lure an individual he thought was a 13-year-old boy in an internet chat room. The person he was communicating with online, however, was actually a police officer using what is now a routine police method of catching predators.

In front of the Congressional committee, Rich pointed to other ways the law could be used to protect children.

"[The Commission] has brought a number of enforcement actions against social networking sites since 2006, when social networking exploded on the youth scene," she noted.

Among the cases was a recent order against Twitter that it falsely represented to consumers that it would maintain reasonable security of its system.


Smartphones with location-based services proliferating in an environment without any basic rules or standards make it harder to protect teens' privacy, according to the FTC. ((Manu Fernandez/Associated Press))

Among the new issues Rich pointed to was the use of smartphones with location-based tracking systems.

"Smartphones present unique privacy challenges regarding children," she said.

"The extent to which location-based services were proliferating in an environment without any basic rules or standards, and the degree to which transparency of information-sharing practices is possible on mobile devices."

The FTC is currently hosting a series of roundtables about online privacy and Rich promised a report detailing the agency's planned responses to the ever-increasing challenges posed to teens by online technology.