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Who knows what about me?

A Children’s Commissioner report into the collection and sharing of children’s data

This report draws attention to the vast amounts of data collected about children growing up today and the ways in which it might shape their lives – not just in the short term, but also in the future, as adults.

Concerns about privacy, and especially children’s privacy, are nothing new. For many years now children have been taught that it is very important not to share personal information with people they do not know – whether that be a stranger in the street or when chatting to people online. The issue is framed very much in terms of immediate threats – what if you give someone your address and they wait for you outside your house? What if you give someone a photo and they use it in ways you do not like?

However, the way data is collected and used is changing – rapidly. There are numerous benefits to this, from more evidence-informed policy to services that are more responsive to individual needs. But there continue to be risks. Our old understanding of the risks involved in sharing personal information does not capture the full extent to which it may impact on children’s lives in the future.

The Children’s Commissioner’s Office (CCO) began this project in response to two important observations:

1. More data about children is collected than ever before

It is very difficult to navigate today’s world without developing a sizeable data footprint. An immense amount of data is harvested about people as they go about their lives, regardless of age, gender or background.

However, something that sets current and future generations of children apart from the rest of us is that their digital footprints extend right from the moment of birth and then grow exponentially throughout childhood. In fact, some children might find that their digital footprint begins pre-birth, with many parents posting ultrasound photos to social media as a means of announcing pregnancy.

This is not just about parents and children sharing information on social media, even though that is part of the issue. It is also increasingly about smart toys, speakers and other connected devices which are being brought into more and more homes. It is about the proliferation of monitoring equipment that parents can buy, from pedometers to location tracking watches. And it is about information that is given away when children use essential public services such as schools and GPs – something which they might have very little control over. Children are being “datafied” – not just via social media, but in many aspects of their lives.

2. The availability of this data might have significant consequences for children when they become adults.

We all know that in the wrong hands personal information can threaten a child’s immediate safety. An obvious example is stranger danger – the risk that a stranger might use knowledge of a child’s whereabouts or home address to cause harm to the child. But there is much less understanding of how personal data gathered in childhood might be used to shape an individual’s experiences and prospects in the long term – for better or for worse. Could data about a child’s language development and early educational performance at age four play some role in their university application outcomes? Could their parents’ shopping habits impact upon the products and services they are targeted with through advertising? Could personal health data affect their ability to take out insurance in future?

The potential for a person’s data profile to impact upon their daily experience of life becomes more likely with continued developments in analytical techniques. Natural language processing and machine learning enable us to analyse large swathes of unstructured text that would have previously been unusable. There are methods for identifying individuals in disparate sources of data and linking the information. Algorithms can be used to make predictions about an individual’s characteristics on the basis of other data about them. In essence, data can be used to learn, deduce or infer much more about individuals than ever before – and these techniques will continue to become ever more advanced. The rapid pace of development adds to the essential uncertainty in the question: how will data gathered about children today affect their lives in the future?

It is important that there is better understanding and awareness of the volume of children’s data that is collected. Only then can policymakers consider whether there need to be greater protections put in place. But it is just as important that children and parents themselves are made aware of the data being collected and what they can do if they are concerned - something that is reflected in the government’s revamped guidance on relationships and sex education, which is currently under consultation:

“Pupils should have a strong understanding of how data is generated, collected, shared and used online, for example, how personal data is captured on social media or understanding the way that businesses may exploit the data available to them.”

Educating children early and comprehensively about the many ways in which their data might be used is an important way to foster digital resilience and to help rebalance the power between children and those that gather or use their personal information. Our Life in Likes research showed that although staying safe online is a priority for many children, this is largely limited to protecting themselves from strangers, online predators, cyberbullying and harmful content shared by others. These findings are supported by evidence from ongoing research by the London School of Economics and Political Science which suggests that children see data privacy in a specific way, grasping the significance of information they share directly with others, but not the broader picture involving commercial organisations and public services. Our aim in this project was to draw attention to the fuller picture, and provide some simple, practical steps that can be taken to minimise a child’s data footprint if children and parents are concerned.