UK report warns of unknown impact of collecting children’s data

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New research from the UK Children’s Commission raises concerns about what collection of children’s data means for their lives now and in the future.

We are living in a data-driven world, where so many of the services we access and use are powered by information from apps, websites, toys and even government bodies.

While this is becoming a fact of life in this digital era, one concerning element is the creation of data footprints for children from a very young age. The first baby photograph shared on Instagram begins a long chain of data collection, which explodes once the children themselves have the capacity to engage on social media platforms and websites of their own accord.

Children’s data collection must be examined

A report from the office of the UK Children’s Commissioner, Anne Longfield, offers us pause for thought when it comes to the collection of children’s data from such a young age, as well as the potential future impact.

The research, titled Who knows what about me?calls for action to be taken in a world where, on average, parents have posted 1,300 images of their child to social media before they turn 13.

Longfield said: “We all need to pause and think. At the very least, schools need to start educating their pupils about the importance of guarding personal information. 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 [a] language that children understand.”

As well as data shared by children and parents themselves, information from schools, healthcare systems and internet-connected toys adds to the digital footprint of the average child.

Unwanted future impact

The report also noted that data shared as a child or teenager could have some unwanted impact in the future. It explained: “A child talking about their mental health problems on social media might find that this information hinders them from getting health insurance or perhaps even other types of credit.

“Colleges and universities might use not only exam results and personal statements to award places, but data collected from educational apps or connected devices.”

The commission called for the UK government to consider regulating organisations using automated decision-making, to be more forthright about when and how data used by these digital systems has been collected from under-18s.

Notably, the report questions how such a relentless data tracking and collection environment will impact on the much-valued freedom all children should be entitled to. “Making mistakes and pushing boundaries is a normal part of childhood, but is less likely when children are being tracked so closely.”

In a broader sense, the report noted worries about how public sector bodies could use children’s data, in immigration proceedings or other administrative capacities.

A curriculum around data

In schools, the commission called for a curriculum around children’s data collection to be established. When it comes to the plethora of connected toys and gadgets out there aimed at kids, the collection of audio and video or other types of data must be made clear in the terms and conditions, along with how it will be used. The creation of terms and conditions for children to understand was also recommended.

On average, a child now will have posted online 70,000 times on the internet by the time they turn 18. Without education, regulation and consideration, experts and the commission worry that children will move through the digital landscape without the protection and knowledge they require.

Response from BTHA

The British Toy and Hobby Association (BTHA) responded to the report, saying: “Whilst it is estimated that only 1-2pc of the UK toy industry consists of connected toys, the BTHA’s members limit the amount of personal data collected, using closed loop systems where possible.

“When data is collected, this is done to enhance the play experience – for example, remembering the level of the game the child has reached – and is collected lawfully and safely.

“The BTHA is a key supporter of Media Smart, which is a media literacy programme for seven- to 16-year-olds and provides free educational materials for schools and youth organisations, parents, and guardians.

“With the backing of the BTHA, Media Smart are currently producing a free educational resource around data protection and privacy targeted at nine- to 11-year-olds in primary schools, which will launch next Easter.”

Longfield added: “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.”

Ellen Tannam is a writer covering all manner of business and tech subjects

editorial@siliconrepublic.com