Let’s empower children of the data age

The youngest generation is the first to be ‘datafied’ from birth. What are the implications for their future, and how can we ensure they reap the digital benefits of today? Michael Brennan examines data and privacy for children

At Profusion we’ve been reflecting on the challenges of educating young people on the importance of data security and personal privacy. It all started when we launched our summer work experience programme and needed to come up with a teen-friendly introduction to the UK Data Protection Act (2018) – aka GDPR.

Happily, there’s a lot of work being done in this space – even if it’s focused mostly on the inadequacies of our current approach. Internet safety has, after all, been on the school curriculum since 2014.

The thrust of the critique is that the discussion has focused too narrowly on the immediate harms that can arise from online interactions, relationships and direct sharing of personal information. This attention is understandable, of course. The priority is to protect children from direct harm, hence the fixation on bullying, grooming, impersonation and other predatory activities.

The impact of ‘sharenting’

Amid the focus on external threats or ‘stranger dangers’, it’s sadly ironic that parents can inadvertently be part of the problem. Bank and financial services company Barclays forecast that by 2030, two thirds of identity fraud cases will be directly connected to sharenting activities.

Sharenters, in case you are unaware, are those parents that enthusiastically post content about their children on social media. This includes photos, videos, birthday messages and the like. Research suggests that by the time they hit their 13th birthday, a child will have been posted about 1,300 times by their parent(s).

Happily researchers also report that such sharing appears to be in decline (or has at least shifted to encrypted messaging channels). The complicating factor here is that the very same parents acknowledge that they do not really know the majority of their online friends and have made little or no effort to tighten their privacy settings.

Awareness – how data is generated, collected and used

As Anne Longfield OBE, the Children’s Commissioner of England, suggests, our approach might benefit from a broader lens:

“Pupils should have a strong understanding of how data is generated, collected, shared and used online, for example, how personal data is captured on social media or understanding the way that businesses may exploit the data available to them.”

Particularly interesting is the clear parallel with efforts to improve Relationship and Sex Education (RSE) in schools. This suggests a much richer and more nuanced approach to our relationship with data and digital interactions.

The great unknown – digital benefits vs potential harm

Why is there so much concern? We know ourselves that it can be hard to fully articulate, or make relevant, the dangers that children might face in the future as a result of their activities today. In fact we run the risk of asking young people to forgo today’s digital benefits because of possible but uncertain harms tomorrow – not a winning formula!

But it is this very uncertainty that is the issue. As Sonia Livingstone and her colleagues at the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE) have highlighted, the current generation of children can be seen as ‘canaries in the coal mine’ with regard to new apps, channels, devices and services. More broadly speaking, they are also the first generation to be datafied from birth. As the Children’s Commissioner puts it:

“Children are following an untrodden path, and we cannot fully understand what the implications of this are going to be many years down the line.”

Predicting the unpredictable

When we consider how quickly the internet has developed over the past 25 years, it becomes clear how impossible it is to anticipate every issue that might occur in the future.

Did anyone predict the rise of state-sponsored hackers and troll farms, that would disrupt mature democracies and work to bring an ageing uber-capitalist, real-estate and reality TV mogul to power? Or that they would do this by micro-targeting voters with tailored messaging, informed by a vast trove of personal data illicitly secured via a Facebook-enabled consumer survey?

And to pick on well-meaning parents again, how many would have even considered that the connected toy they bought for their toddler could be hacked – or that the hackers could speak directly to their child?

What about the development of the blended (commercial and state) Chinese Social Credit system, with new commercial variants under development, for example from Line?

“The response should be a much broader approach”

In this brave new world, who can confidently say how their behaviour and decisions as children may or may not be used to discriminate against them in the future? And do please remember that this is as at least as much a political as a commercial question. This is far too often forgotten by Western citizens basking in years of relative peace and democracy.

The response here should not be a total shutdown, as apparently favoured by the Silicon Valley elite on behalf of their own (but not other) children. Rather the response, as indicated by the Children’s Commissioner should be a much broader approach to education, information, resilience and wellbeing.

The secure management and principled processing of children’s data was treated as an important sub-section of the GDPR. Nascent rights to limit data profiling and automated decision making without consent are also now written into European legislation.

“We need common standards and rules of engagement”

The dangers and threats that children face online are not borne in a vacuum. They are part of the society that we all live in. As young people would be the first to argue, we now live in a seamless, hybrid, world of virtual and physical channels and interactions.

As such we need a common set of standards and rules of engagement across all such channels, wherever and however people interact and engage with each other. Crucially, such an approach should extend far beyond individual conduct and must also engage with corporate practices.

With their keen sense of injustice and veteran relationship with digital channels, young adults are among the first to highlight corporate malfeasance across multiple domains. It is important that this critical lens is now trained on Big Tech and that the mistakes of our generation are not extended into the future.

Children are our future

Put simply, today’s generation of decision-makers have been dazzled, if not captured, by the shiny promises of big tech (helped by vast investments in corporate lobbying). They have given a green light to the establishment of vast global data aggregators, who now have the data and so the power to define and dictate our futures.

Now is the time for a re-balancing, effective regulation and the promotion of a diverse and differentiated digital ecosystem. Children are our future – let’s make sure that’s not compromised by today’s mistakes.

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Michael Brennan

Consultant, Profusion

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