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Children’s personal privacy online – it’s neither personal nor private

Monday was Data Privacy Day, celebrated annually to raise awareness about people’s rights and good practice when it comes to data protection and privacy. Here, the London School of Economics and Political Science’s Rishita Nandagiri, Professor Sonia Livingstone and Mariya Stoilova explain the findings of their recent research into children’s data and privacy online. 

Data Privacy Day invites us to consider that children’s online activities are the focus of a multitude of monitoring and data-generating processes, yet the possible implications of this ‘datafication of children’ has only recently caught the attention of governments, researchers and privacy advocates. Attempts to recognise children’s right to privacy on its own terms are relatively new and have been brought to the fore by the adoption of the European General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR, 2018) as well as by recent high-profile privacy issues and infringements. Still, important gaps remain in our knowledge of how children experience privacy online, raising questions about informed consent and children’s rights.

Children’s rights in the digital age

What are the consequences of the process of intensified monitoring and data gathering in which children are quantified and objectified? How does being positioned as commercialised objects rather than subjects or agents of their own interests and concerns affect children’s rights in the digital age?

With growing concerns over children’s privacy online and the commercial uses of their data, it is vital that children’s understandings of the digital environment, their digital skills and their capacity to consent are taken into account in designing services, regulation and policy.

With these issues in mind, we initiated a project on Children’s Data and Privacy Online funded by the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO), seeking to explore:

  • Children’s understanding, importance and negotiation of privacy online;
  • The digital skills, capabilities or vulnerabilities with which children approach the digital environment;
  • The significant gaps in knowledge about children’s online privacy and commercial use of data;
  • How responsibilities should be apportioned among relevant stakeholders and the implications for children’s wellbeing and rights.

Today we launch the first report from this project resulting from a systematic evidence mapping which gathered, systematised and evaluated the existing evidence base on children’s privacy online. The report discusses key approaches to the study of children’s privacy in the digital environment; children’s own understandings, experiences and views of privacy online; their approach to navigating the internet and its commercial practices; experiences of online risks and harm; ways of supporting children’s privacy and media literacy; and how differences in age, development and vulnerability make a difference to children’s practices, risks and support needs.

Key findings include:

  • The key privacy challenge (and paradox) currently posed by the internet is the simultaneous interconnectedness of voluntary sharing of personal information online, important for children’s agency, and the attendant threat to their privacy, also important for their safety. While children value their privacy and engage in protective strategies, they also appreciate the ability to engage online.
  • Individual privacy decisions and practices are influenced by the social environment. Children negotiate sharing or withholding of personal information in a context in which networked communication and sharing practices shape their decisions and create the need to balance privacy with the need for participation, self-expression and belonging.
  • Institutionalised aspects of privacy, where data control is delegated – voluntarily or not – to external agencies such as government institutions, is becoming the norm rather than the exception in the digital age. Yet there are gaps in our knowledge of how children experience institutional privacy, raising questions about informed consent and children’s rights.
  • The invasive tactics used by marketers to collect personal information from children have aroused data privacy and security concerns particularly relating to children’s ability to understand and consent to such datafication and the need for parental approval and supervision, especially for the youngest internet users. While the commercial use of children’s data is at the forefront of current privacy debates, the empirical evidence related to children’s experiences, awareness and competence regarding privacy online lags behind. The evidence suggests that commercial privacy is the area where children are least able to comprehend and manage on their own.
  • Privacy is vital for child development – key privacy-related media literacy skills are closely associated with a range of child developmental areas. While children develop their privacy-related awareness, literacy and needs as they grow older, even the oldest children struggle to comprehend the full complexity of internet data flows and some aspects of data commercialisation. The child development evidence related to privacy is insufficient but it undoubtedly points to the need for a tailored approach which acknowledges developments and individual differences amongst children.
  • Not all children are equally able to navigate the digital environment safely, taking advantage of the existing opportunities while avoiding or mitigating privacy risks. The evidence mapping demonstrates that differences between children (developmental, socio-economic, skill-related, gender- or vulnerability-based) might influence their engagement with privacy online, although more evidence is needed regarding differences among children. This raises pressing questions for media literacy research and educational provision. It also invites greater attention to children’s voices and their heterogeneous experiences, competencies and capacities.
  • While the task of balancing children’s independence and protection is challenging, evidence suggests that good support can make an important difference to children’s privacy online. Risk aversion, however, restricts children’s play, development and agency, and constrains their exploration of physical, social and virtual worlds. Restrictive parenting has a suppressive effect, reducing privacy and other risks but also impeding the benefits of internet use. Enabling mediation, on the other hand, is more empowering in allowing children to engage with social networks, albeit also experiencing some risk while learning independent protective behaviours.
  • The evidence also suggests that design standards and regulatory frameworks are needed which account for children’s overall privacy needs across age groups, and pay particular attention and consideration to the knowledge, abilities, skills and vulnerabilities of younger users.

Next steps

The evidence review demonstrated the importance of taking a child-centred approach to provide the needed integration of children’s understandings, online affordances, resulting experiences and wellbeing outcomes. To address the evidence gaps we identified, the second stage of the project is to conduct focus group research with children of secondary school age, their parents and educators, from selected schools around the country. We will then use this new evidence for formulating child-inclusive policy and educational/ awareness-raising recommendations and for creating an online toolkit to support and promote children’s digital privacy skills and awareness.

Download the full report

Download the executive summary

Download the summaries of empirical studies on children’s understanding of data and privacy online

Article courtesy of LSE Media Policy Project.

Author: Sonia Livingstone, Mariya Stoilova and Rishita Nandagiri

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