The Office of the Children’s Commissioner for England is today publishing a new report looking how vast amounts of children’s data is collected. This is information about children growing up which often the child and parents are unaware of, and the ways in which it might shape their lives both now and in the future as adults. ‘Who knows what about me?’ reveals how more information is collected and shared about children than ever before – in the screens they watch, the websites and apps they use and the information that is captured by public services.
The report calls on companies producing apps, toys and other products aimed at children to be transparent about how they are capturing information about children and how it is being used, and argues that children should be taught in schools about how their data is collected and for what purposes. It also calls for a statutory duty of care between the internet giants and children who use their apps and sites, and for the Government to consider strengthening data protection legislation.
Children’s digital footprints are getting bigger and bigger. The report highlights how children aged 11-16 post on social media on average 26 times a day, which means by the age of 18 they are likely to have posted 70,000 times. By the age of 13, a child’s parents will have posted on average 1,300 photos and videos of them to social media. Many children too young to use the internet are also using ”internet-connected toys”, many of which gather personal information and messages. Last year, 2 million CloudPets voice messages shared between children and their family members were found being stored unprotected online.
‘Who knows what about me’ shows how children’s data is routinely collected online through social media updates on parents’ profiles, through children’s smartphone and tablets and through web-browsing and search engines and at home through smart speakers, connected toys and connected baby cameras. Data is also collected outside the home through location tracking watches, school databases, classroom apps, biometric data in schools, retail loyalty schemes, travel passes, and medical records such as the Personal Child Health Record and GP records.
It also explains the benefits and risks of children’s data being collected. For example, data can be used to drive innovation, personalise services and improve consumer experiences and public services. However, children growing up today are among the first to be ‘datafied’ from birth and we do not fully understand yet what all the implications of this is going to be when they are adults. The report warns that with so much data being collected about today’s children, they will be at an increased risk of identity theft and fraud as they grow up. Furthermore, sensitive information about a child could find its way into their data profile and used to make highly significant decisions about them, e.g. whether they are offered a job, insurance or credit. Collecting so much data about children also raises important questions about their freedom and independence. Making mistakes and pushing boundaries is a normal part of childhood, but is less likely when children are being tracked so closely. Children are also becoming accustomed to sharing their information without asking why it is needed or what it will be used for.
The Children’s Commissioner’s Office make a number of recommendations to policy-makers including:
- Companies producing apps, toys and other products aimed at children should be more transparent about any trackers capturing information about children. In particular where a toy collects any video or audio generated by a child this should be made explicit in a prominent part of the packaging or its accompanying information. Companies should also state their terms and conditions using language children understand, explaining clearly what data is collected and how it will be used.
- Schools should teach children about how their data is collected and used and what they can do to take control of their data footprint. These lessons should cover information shared online, at home and outside the home. The Children’s Commissioner’s Office has produced a helpful information with top tips, which schools can use.
- The Government must urgently refine data protection legislation if GDPR does not prove adequate in practice.
- There should be a statutory duty of care governing relationships between social media companies and the audiences they target. The Children’s Commissioner’s office will be working with the law firm Schillings to draft one.
Simone Vibert, senior policy analyst for the Office of the Children’s Commissioner, and author of the report, said:
“More and more information is collected about all of us as we navigate today’s digital world. But the difference for children is that their data footprints extend from birth, documenting their earliest experiences – both good and bad.
“A child’s personal information should not be used in a way that leads to them facing disadvantage as an adult, yet that is a possibility we are facing. We urgently need to introduce safeguards to minimise risks like these, while allowing data to be used positively to improve public services and customer experiences.”
Anne Longfield, the Children’s Commissioner for England, said:
“Children are often shocked to learn just how information and data is collected about them as they grow up, from the information stored by new gadgets like Alexa to data held by their schools. We need to make sure that they can make informed choices about the data they are giving away and that their parents know who knows what about their kids. The Government must urgently refine data protection legislation if GDPR does not prove up to the job.
“I also want to see all manufacturers and the big internet companies be transparent about how their devices are capturing information about children, toy manufacturers clearly labelling their packaging if they are capturing children’s audio or video and a statutory duty of care between the social media giants and their younger users.
“This is an issue that will only grow as technology continues to advance and it is vital that protections are put in place by the Government so that any data collected about children is done transparently and is used only for positive reasons.”