There are two kinds of risks associated with children’s data on the internet. One is commercial. The other is connected with possible threats to a child’s physical safety and well-being.
Taking them in turn, we all know the expression “Data is the new oil”. The internet has become a central part of the way the world now works. More and more goods and services are being sold or provided online and the companies that sell or provide them want to place their advertisements in front of potential customers. To do this they need information, data, about the kind of tastes people have, what kind of things they are interested in. They can either buy or acquire such data from data brokers or they will advertise on online platforms such as Facebook or Instagram who have already pretty much done the sifting, sorting, and categorizing for them.
In relation to a child’s physical safety, bullies or paedophiles will often go to chat areas linked with online games, or other interactive spaces on the web looking out for someone who is perhaps sharing too much information about themselves, perhaps sending out a signal that they are lonely or bored, or both. In lockdown, there is a great fear that this has been on the increase.
Are there steps I can take to protect my children from digital data collection?
Taking them in reverse order this time, the first recommendation is the most obvious and often also the hardest. Sit down and talk to your children about the importance of not putting too much “out there”, particularly in environments where they will not and cannot know everyone who might be involved in a game.
They need to be particularly careful about letting slip information about where they live, what school they go to, telephone numbers, social media handles, that kind of thing. Maybe even harder in lockdown if you also have to work or look after more than one child at home, try to make sure the possibility of getting bored is minimised. There are bits of software you can load on to your children’s devices that can help monitor what they are up to without necessarily allowing you to “spy” on everything – they can send you a text alert so you can check it out – and they won’t allow telephone numbers or email addresses to appear on screen.
On the commercial aspect, there are things called ad-blockers and you can set your web browser to “do not track” or use a browser that doesn’t collect that kind of data anyway. Some of the programmes mentioned above will also block all financial transactions or send you a text alert so once again you can check it out before deciding whether or not to let it proceed. Who said being a parent was easy?