Children should have the right to privacy and protection of their personal online data. They should be educated, informed and empowered to protect their data
The Internet is inherently public, but that doesn’t mean we give up our children’s rights to privacy and security. Kids as young as five already know how to download and play games and these days, we can find just about everyone on social networking sites. Every time a child posts a photo on social media browses for products or searches for something online, he or she generates data. Those data, in turn, feed into an industry that processes the child’s personal information, including identity, location, preferences and many other details. A majority of them still think that the Internet is a playground where information, entertainment, and other types of content could be accessed without consequences. The truth is, while we all enjoy the Internet, cybercriminals are constantly on the lookout for new victims, especially those who can be easily tricked and baited with cleverly disguised schemes.
Online privacy of children
In general, children’s privacy is more likely to be respected in a digital environment where:
Risks associated with children’s privacy online
Despite considerable benefits for children’s education and development, the Internet also exposes them to various online risks and potential long-term privacy consequences.
Kids could get hurt: With location-aware social media such as Twitter, Kik, and Facebook, kids can reveal their actual, physical locations to all their contacts—plenty of whom they don't know personally. Imagine a selfie that's location-tagged and says, "Bored, by myself, just hanging out looking for something fun to do."
Children could be humiliated: Sharing fun stuff from your life with friends is fine. But oversharing is never a good idea. When kids post inappropriate material—whether it's an inappropriate selfie, an explicit photo session with a friend, an overly revealing rant, or cruel comments about others—the results can be humiliating if those posts become public or shared widely.
Children could be victim of marketing: Children can be very vulnerable for ‘behavioural’ advertising, targeting online ads to specific behaviours, as well as other advertising techniques. This will contribute to the growing commercialization of childhood.But beyond being targeted as consumers, children risk something even greater when businesses become interested in knowing what they are doing online. Not only watching and recording what a child is doing but manipulate the online social environment in ways that impact the child’s sense of self and security.
Your child could lose out on opportunities: Children’s private world will be opened up to the marketing machines, and they will be vulnerable, can also be victim of mass surveillance, monitoring organisations will be able to link individual profiles with data and would allow them to build and maintain records of children’s entire digital existence.
Sharenting—a common risky phenomena
One potential source of abuse of children’s data comes from their own parents. Parents oversharing information about their children is nothing new. However, today’s digital lifestyle can take it to a new level, turning parents into “potentially the distributors of information about their children to mass audiences”. Such ‘sharenting’, which is becoming more and more common, can harm a child’s reputation. Parents’ lack of awareness can cause damage to a child’s well-being when these digital assets depict a child without clothing, as they can be misused by child sex offenders. It can also harm child well-being in the longer term by interfering with children’s ability to self-actualize, create their own identity and find employment.
Limitation in regulatory mechanism of children privacy
Despite increasing risks and threats, law does not always provide adequate protection of children’s privacy rights. Most regulatory approaches to protecting child privacy online have been based on principles of parental consent. Approaches vary among countries, but typically service providers are required to obtain verified parental consent before offering services to, or collecting data from, children below a certain threshold age. But in many cases, children are not willing to share their online experiences with their parents, requiring parental consent for any data sharing on the part of the children would in effect reduce their autonomy and freedom online.
Another difficulty which arises is what kind of regulations to be adopted to protect the children privacy. Any regulation would need to strike a balance between protecting children online and respecting their freedom of expression, access to information and development of digital literacy as they grow up.
Challenges in protecting the online privacy of children
Why do terms and conditions need to be so long and complicated? The pages of rules that many online service providers ask users to sign could in many cases be made more child-friendly and thus help build children’s digital literacy. How to ensure that service providers should access, collect and use only that amount of information which is needed to perform its intended function?
The need for parental consent may also contradict some recent evidence showing that children have some awareness of privacy threats and share some of the same concerns about identify theft and data mining as adults. In several cases, the children have more awareness than their parents. In these circumstances, how will the parental consent will be effective in protecting children’s privacy online?
Studies revealed that older children know how to manage their privacy settings online, whereas younger children more often do not. Then will it not be good to increase the threshold ages for consent. Arguably, this may encourage children to lie about their age to online service providers. Critics argue it may also provide potential child groomers with a plausible defence that they assumed someone contacted through a social media site was at least 16 years—the age of sexual consent in many countries.
What is the way out?
There are better ways than requiring parental consent to protect children’s right to privacy while also safeguarding their other rights. These include education initiatives and making children and parents aware about risks and dangers associated with privacy, and precautions to safely navigate through online world.
Another possible solution could be to change the default privacy settings. Every device and the services should inherently come with the safest privacy setting required for the children unless it is changed to be used for the adults.
A greater burden of responsibility needs to be placed on online service providers to set clear limits to their collection, processing and retention of children’s data. Policies should also include “transparency in methods of data collection and clear explanations of how resulting data will be used”. These explanations should also be adapted to children’s information needs and understanding.