What children know about their data

While much has been written and researched about privacy in the digital age until now there has been little commentary about how children themselves understand privacy online, their data and specifically the commercial use of it.

A definition of privacy by Alan Westin in the 1960s is still relevant today: ‘The claim of individuals, groups, or institutions to determine themselves when, how and to what extent information about them is communicated to others.’

The Children’s Data and Privacy Online project, while not completed provides the following insights from a 16-year-old ‘Well we don’t actually know where the information is going. You can sign up for an app and tell them your name and your age and stuff and they’ll say at the bottom that it’s all private and stuff, but then it goes somewhere. There’s the question of where does it go.’  The project seeks to ‘address questions about young peoples’ privacy and data literacy, their understanding of the online commercial environment and their capacity to consent.’ 

Evidence suggests that some children and young people value, expect and understand their online privacy in relation to family and friends but less so about how businesses capture, use and monetise their data. Younger children’s {9-11 years] sharing of personal data is managed or guided by their parents but as they become more independent and their activities are less moderated, over time they become more knowledgeable about how to create a balance between public and private as they navigate and negotiate platforms, audiences, data and privacy settings. 

The researchers found that the 11-16-year-olds they spoke to have a reasonable understanding of cookies, data and privacy when using sites or apps and that the advertisements displayed in their browser are linked to previous searches. While they expressed a need to discuss what this means or what they should do about it ‘they are sceptical that their parents or teachers know enough to really explain!’ not surprising given data projection gets little attention by adults. In fact, parents who were interviewed said they felt ‘helpless in protecting their children’s personal data from digital companies.’

It’s reassuring that the next phase of this project will lead to the development of a set of online tools to help adults engage with their children or students in conversations about data protection that are age-appropriate.

Data breaches and commercial exploitation pose significant risks to vulnerable children and young people as they navigate digital environments. Tech companies, businesses, governments, educational institutions and families have much to do to address the current needs and rights of children in this ‘datafied’ world with an eye on the future as it continues to evolve.

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