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Sonia Livingstone

February 1st, 2019

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

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Estimated reading time: 10 minutes

Sonia Livingstone

February 1st, 2019

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

0 comments | 1 shares

Estimated reading time: 10 minutes

To mark Data Privacy Day on Monday and the launch of a new ICO-funded report, this post considers the implications of the intensified monitoring and data gathering which children are increasingly being subjected to. It also asks how children understand privacy online and what this means for services, regulation and policy. Rishita NandagiriSonia Livingstone and Mariya Stoilova discuss their systematic evidence-mapping of studies of how children themselves understand their 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. 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.

This week we launched 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.

Notes


Download the full report

Download the executive summary

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

This post originally appeared on the Media Policy Project blog and has been reposted here with permission.

This post gives the views of the authors and does not represent the position of the LSE Parenting for a Digital Future blog, nor of the London School of Economics and Political Science.

About the author

Sonia Livingstone

Sonia Livingstone OBE is Professor of Social Psychology in the Department of Media and Communications at LSE. Taking a comparative, critical and contextual approach, her research examines how the changing conditions of mediation are reshaping everyday practices and possibilities for action. She has published twenty books on media audiences, media literacy and media regulation, with a particular focus on the opportunities and risks of digital media use in the everyday lives of children and young people. Her most recent book is The class: living and learning in the digital age (2016, with Julian Sefton-Green). Sonia has advised the UK government, European Commission, European Parliament, Council of Europe and other national and international organisations on children’s rights, risks and safety in the digital age. She was awarded the title of Officer of the Order of the British Empire (OBE) in 2014 'for services to children and child internet safety.' Sonia Livingstone is a fellow of the Academy of Social Sciences, the British Psychological Society, the Royal Society for the Arts and fellow and past President of the International Communication Association (ICA). She has been visiting professor at the Universities of Bergen, Copenhagen, Harvard, Illinois, Milan, Oslo, Paris II, Pennsylvania, and Stockholm, and is on the editorial board of several leading journals. She is on the Executive Board of the UK Council for Child Internet Safety, is a member of the Internet Watch Foundation’s Ethics Committee, is an Expert Advisor to the Council of Europe, and was recently Special Advisor to the House of Lords’ Select Committee on Communications, among other roles. Sonia has received many awards and honours, including honorary doctorates from the University of Montreal, Université Panthéon Assas, the Erasmus University of Rotterdam, the University of the Basque Country, and the University of Copenhagen. She is currently leading the project Global Kids Online (with UNICEF Office of Research-Innocenti and EU Kids Online), researching children’s understanding of digital privacy (funded by the Information Commissioner’s Office) and writing a book with Alicia Blum-Ross called ‘Parenting for a Digital Future (Oxford University Press), among other research, impact and writing projects. Sonia is chairing LSE’s Truth, Trust and Technology Commission in 2017-2018, and participates in the European Commission-funded research networks, DigiLitEY and MakEY. She runs a blog called www.parenting.digital and contributes to the LSE’s Media Policy Project blog. Follow her on Twitter @Livingstone_S

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