How to Explain Data Collection and Privacy to Children

Data Collection and Privacy

Children spend a lot of time online doing schoolwork, playing games and connecting with friends. Their digital identity is an important part of who they are. Unfortunately, the online services used by kids are not always safe or ethical.

Most kids have been taught not to trust people online that they don’t know, or to give out private information to strangers. There’s less awareness around data profiling by websites and applications. 

According to university lecturer Siobhan O’Flynn, ‘children today are subjugated to a scale of data collection and targeting that we cannot fathom. Right now, we also have no clue about the consequences, and regulatory protections to data-proof their futures are far from certain.’

Starting a Conversation 

Data is collected through search engines, games, toys, online purchases and social media platforms. Information collected includes the user’s name, date of birth, address, email, gender, location, purchase history, search history, websites visited, downloads, photos and even online conversations. Some sites have access to device microphones and cameras. 

At present this data is used largely to target advertising to kids, but the vast digital profiles which are being created have the potential to be used for undefined purposes in the future. There’s also a chance this data could fall into the wrong hands. Once a digital profile is created it is very difficult to delete it, which is why it’s important to educate children about what they can do now to protect their data. 

One research project about online privacy found that when kids were asked about data collection ‘the discussion often diverted to general internet safety, with children reciting familiar messages about ‘stranger danger’ and password sharing, but failing to grapple with how their data might become available online and how it might be used for unintended purposes.’

You can begin the conversation about online privacy by discussing how this involves more than protecting passwords and not sharing personal information. Ask your child to consider what sorts of information they’re asked to provide when creating a user account, and what companies might do with this data. 

This can lead to a further discussion about advertising and commercial exploitation of data. Ask your child why it’s a problem if Artificial Intelligence uses their information to predict what they might want to buy, read or consume in the future. 

Protecting Kids’ Privacy

After your child has a good understanding of how and why their data is collected, it’s helpful to brainstorm some strategies to protect themselves. Here are some ideas for maintaining online privacy:

  • Only complete mandatory fields when creating new user profiles.
  • Opt out of direct marketing.
  •  Adjust settings on all websites, apps and games for maximum privacy.
  • Review privacy policies so you understand exactly what information is being collected.
  • Teach your child to keep an eye out for keywords such as ‘advertising’ and ‘location tracking.’
  • Control cookies and use add-ons and ad blockers to protect information.
  • Regularly clear browser history and make use of in private browsing
  • Unsubscribe to websites and delete applications and accounts which are no longer used.
  • Use end-to-end encryption apps like WhatsApp to send messages that can’t be read. 

Learning how to protect their data is a life skill all kids need.