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9 November 2018
By Rebecca Avery

Children’s Commissioner publishes ‘Who knows what about me?’ report exploring how children’s data is collected

The Office of the Children’s Commissioner for England has published a new report looking how vast amounts of children’s data is collected. ‘Who knows what about me?’ reveals how more information is being collected and shared about children than ever before – by their parents, in the screens they watch, the websites and apps they use, and the information captured about them 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 children’s data 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 service providers and children who use their apps and sites, and for the Government to consider strengthening data protection legislation.

Anne Longfield, the Children's Commissioner for England, said:

"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. We simply do not know what the consequences of all this information about our children will be. 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."

The report estimates:

  • Over half of the UK’s 11–12 year-olds are on social media
  • between the ages of 11 and 16, children post on social media 26 times a day, on average
  • by the time they reach adulthood, they are likely to have posted 70,000 times
  • Parents share around 71 photos and 29 videos of their child every year on social media
  • 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 parents share their photos with strangers: a fifth have public Facebook profiles, and over half of parents are Facebook friends with people they do not really know.

‘Who knows what about me’ shows how children’s data is routinely collected:

  • when children use the internet on games consoles, smartphone and tablets and through web-browsing and search engines
  • at home through smart speakers, connected toys and connected baby cameras
  • through tracking devices and apps used by parents to keep tabs on their offspring
  • via the biometric data held by public bodies such as schools and the NHS
  • through social media updates on parents’ profiles

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. This can bring risks:

  • Children will be at an increased risk of identity theft and fraud.
    • Research by Barclays suggests that by 2030, information shared by parents online will lead to two-thirds of the identity theft committed against young people.
  • Sensitive information could find its way into a child’s data profile and used to make highly significant decisions about them, for example. whether they are offered a job, insurance or credit.
  • There can be an impact on children’s freedom and independence; making mistakes and pushing boundaries is a normal part of childhood but is less likely when children are being tracked and scrutinised so closely.
  • Children are 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 several 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.
  • 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 Government should 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 has produced helpful ‘top tips’ to help minimise children’s data footprints for children and parents/carers. It’s recommended that schools and settings can use these tips to facilitate discussions with children and to share and develop awareness with parents and carers.

Find out more by accessing the full report, an interactive infographic and a downloadable version.