Children, privacy and the internet

By John Carr on

John Carr examines the privacy concerns that arise when a child’s personal information is collected by sites or images are shared by parents online.

Child-on-computer

The high value of data collection

Data is the new oil” is now commonly accepted as a defining characteristic of the internet age. What this means is that information about internet users – their likes and dislikes, tastes and preferences – has now become extremely valuable to businesses – that typically use it to target advertisements or promotions for products or services they hope to sell or supply.

You’ve signed the Ts & Cs – do you know how the info you’ve submitted will be used?

However, before a company can collect or use any information about you they need your informed consent and part of obtaining that entails them explaining what they are going to do with your data. That includes letting you know if they might allow other organisations to use it.

All this is usually done at first sign up when you tick a box to indicate your agreement to the site’s terms and conditions. These “Ts & Cs” can run to dozens of densely packed pages peppered with legalese. Hardly anyone ever reads them and if you are signing up via a device with a small screen e.g. a smartphone, it’s a practical impossibility. This practice has not been working well for adults so it’s not surprising to discover it’s not working well for kids either.

Investigation into sites collecting children’s data

In September this year, the results of an investigation into websites and apps aimed at children was – published. It was carried out by 29 Data Protection Commissioners from around the world including Britain’s Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO). Here are a few of the headlines from the publication:

67% of the sites/apps examined collected children’s personal information

Only 31% of sites/apps had effective controls in place to limit the collection of personal information from children.

Half of sites/apps shared personal information with third parties

22% of sites/apps provided an opportunity for children to give their phone number and 23% of sites/apps allowed them to provide photos or video. The potential sensitivity of this data is clearly a concern

58% of sites/apps offered children the opportunity to be redirected to a different website

Only 24% of sites/apps encouraged parental involvement

71% of sites/apps did not offer an accessible means for deleting account information.

The project did find examples of good practice, with some websites and apps providing effective protective controls, such as parental dashboards, and pre-set avatars and/or usernames to prevent children inadvertently sharing their own personal information.

Other good examples included chat functions which only allowed children to choose words and phrases from pre-approved lists, and use of just-in-time warnings to deter children from unnecessarily entering personal information.

Although a number of sites and apps were helping to protect children’s personal information overall the picture was worrying.

Sharenting online – what privacy concerns does this raise?

Privacy concerns of a different kind were raised in an interesting blog. Here, the issue was about children’s rights to privacy versus, say their parents’ right to boast about them by publishing information and pictures online, perhaps without their consent, maybe because the children were too young to understand the nature of what this meant for them.

Now of course ethically and legally in the UK and many places in the world parents are encouraged to always to act in the best interests of their children. It may well be in their children’s best interests to feel part of a wider family or social grouping in the way that careful image sharing online would imply.

Or put it another way, if parents posted inappropriate images or were careless about the places where they posted them and the information they linked to them, the question of the child giving or not giving consent would hardly come up.

Children’s rights to privacy online

However, in my mind there is no question that once a child reached a certain level of understanding of the issues involved and definitely when they reached the age of 18 – they would have a moral and probably also a legal right to override their parents’ wishes and insist that no images of themselves should be posted online without their consent.

They could probably insist that any that were already up had to be taken down. Having said that, I would hate to be the social media platform that found itself in the middle of a family dispute of that kind.

Concerns on posting videos and images of children

What was useful and timely about the blog I referred to earlier was its reminder of the rather obvious but important fact that an image posted on a web site is not the same as an image taken by a camera and printed on t a bit of paper to be handed around or put in a frame on the mantel piece or he piano.

Once an image is posted online it can stay there forever so parents need to think carefully about what they post online and be aware of who has access to it. Right now – as you click “send” it might seem hilarious to let the world see a video clip of little Johnnie losing his swimming trunks as he dives into a swimming pool but as an awkward teenager bigger Johnnie and all his mates might not feel the same way.

It can prove difficult to get the video or image removed permanently as once it’s online it can be copied and redistributed by anyone that has access to it.

Additional Reading 

For more information on how to help your child protect their privacy please visit the following resources:

Image attribution: Lars Plougmann under Creative Commons License