Children are being “datafied” before we’ve understood the risks, report warns

Children are being “datafied” before we’ve understood the risks, report warns

A report by England’s children’s commissioner has raised concerns about how kids’ data is being collected and shared across the board, in both the private and public sectors. “For children growing up today, and the generations that follow them, the impact of profiling will be even greater – simply because there is more data available about them.” By the time a child is 13 their parents will have posted an average of 1,300 photos and videos of them on social media, according to the report. “We simply do not know what the consequences of all this information about our children will be. “Children and parents need to be much more aware of what they share and consider the consequences. The updated data protection framework did beef up protections for children’s personal data in Europe — introducing a new provision setting a 16-year-old age limit on kids’ ability to consent to their data being processed when it came into force on May 25, for example. But, as Longfield points out, Article 5 of the GDPR states that data must be “processed lawfully, fairly and in a transparent manner in relation to individuals”. Yet when it comes to children’s data the children’s commissioner says transparency is simply not there. She also sees limitations with GDPR, from a children’s data protection perspective — pointing out that, for example, it does not prohibit the profiling of children entirely (stating only that it “should not be the norm”). “The key area of concern will be in respect of any limitations in relation to advertising products and services and associated data protection practices.” Recommendations The report makes a series of recommendations for policymakers, with Longfield calling for schools to “teach children about how their data is collected and used, and what they can do to take control of their data footprints”. She also argues that companies targeting products at children have far more explaining to do, writing: Companies producing apps, toys and other products aimed at children should be more transparent about any trackers capturing information about children.

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A report by England’s children’s commissioner has raised concerns about how kids’ data is being collected and shared across the board, in both the private and public sectors.

In the report, entitled Who knows what about me?, Anne Longfield urges society to “stop and think” about what big data means for children’s lives.

Big data practices could result in a data-disadvantaged generation whose life chances are shaped by their childhood data footprint, her report warns.

The long term impacts of profiling minors when these children become adults is simply not known, she writes.

“Children are being “datafied” – not just via social media, but in many aspects of their lives,” says Longfield.

“For children growing up today, and the generations that follow them, the impact of profiling will be even greater – simply because there is more data available about them.”

By the time a child is 13 their parents will have posted an average of 1,300 photos and videos of them on social media, according to the report. After which this data mountain “explodes” as children themselves start engaging on the platforms — posting to social media 26 times per day, on average, and amassing a total of nearly 70,000 posts by age 18.

“We need to stop and think about what this means for children’s lives now and how it may impact on their future lives as adults,” warns Longfield. “We simply do not know what the consequences of all this information about our children will be. In the light of this uncertainty, should we be happy to continue forever collecting and sharing children’s data?

“Children and parents need to be much more aware of what they share and consider the consequences. Companies that make apps, toys and other products used by children need to stop filling them with trackers, and put their terms and conditions in language that children understand. And crucially, the Government needs to monitor the situation and refine data protection legislation if needed, so that children are genuinely protected – especially as technology develops,” she adds.

The report looks at what types of data is being collected on kids; where and by whom; and how it might be used in the short and long term — both for the benefit of children but also considering potential risks.

On the benefits side, the report cites a variety of still fairly experimental ideas that might make positive use of children’s data — such as for targeted inspections of services for kids to focus on areas where data suggests there are problems; NLP technology to speed up analysis of large data-sets (such as the NSPCC’s national case review repository) to find common themes and understand “how to prevent harm and promote positive outcomes”; predictive analytics using data from children and adults to more cost-effectively flag “potential child safeguarding risks to social workers”; and digitizing children’s Personal Child Health Record to make the current paper-based record more widely accessible to professionals working with children.

But while Longfield describes the increasing availability of data as offering “enormous advantages”, she is also very clear on major risks unfolding — be it to safety and well-being; child development and social dynamics; identity theft and fraud; and the longer term impact on children’s opportunity and life chances.

“In effect [children] are the “canary in the coal mine for wider society, encountering the risks before many adults become aware of them or are able to develop strategies to mitigate them,” she warns. “It is crucial that we are mindful of the risks and mitigate them.”

Transparency is lacking

One clear takeaway from the report is there is still a lack of transparency about how children’s data is being collected and processed — which in itself acts as a barrier to better understanding the risks.

“If we better understood what happens to children’s data after it is given – who collects it, who it is shared with and how…

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