Children’s right to privacy in the digital age must be improved


A child plays on a computer © Getty Images

Today’s children are the first generation to be born into a digital age, while their parents are the first to rear ‘digital children,’ according to a new report.

How this affects their privacy, as well as their development, is examined by the Special Rapporteur on the right to privacy, Joseph Cannataci, in the final report of his six-year mandate.

The two-themed report, also looking at the issue of artificial intelligence and privacy, was presented to the 47th Session of the Human Rights Council.

 “Threats to children’s privacy, both in the digital space and out of it, are increasing at alarming rates,” says Cannataci. “Parents have a role to play in protecting their children’s right to privacy, but it is not only up to them: States must safeguard children’s rights by establishing appropriate practices and laws, and also ensuring information is available to children themselves on exercising their rights.”

The report details that children’s use of social media doubles between the ages of nine and 12, with some 40 percent of them having multiple social media profiles. On average, a teenager’s online contacts double during secondary school.

More and more, according to the report, a child’s digital identity commences before birth with in-utero images shared by parents and families across the web, many of which are embedded with personal information.

Some 80 per cent of children living in developed Western countries have a digital footprint before they are two years old, largely due to the actions of their family members.

COVID-19 increasing children’s online presence

The report notes that the COVID-19 pandemic has even further expanded children’s presence on social media, with, for example, daily active accounts for Facebook’s Messenger Kids growing by 350 per cent from March to September 2020.

School closures, affecting around 90 percent of the global student population, led to an enormous shift to online learning. Downloads of education applications increased 90 percent compared to the weekly average in late 2019.

“This amplified existing power imbalances between education technology companies and children, and between governments and children and parents, with several governments waiving existing child data privacy laws,” noted Cannataci.

Children more vulnerable in the online space

Of great concern, according to the report, is the digitalisation and storage of children’s learning data including thinking characteristics, learning trajectory, engagement score, response times, pages read and videos viewed.

An expanding online world for children provides benefits, but also risks such as online sexual abuse and collection of their personal information, particularly for the online advertising market. It means marketers can target younger children, who are not able to differentiate between advertising and content or between fiction and reality.

These risks, says Cannataci, “can limit their potential self-development in childhood, adolescence and possibly adulthood. At its worst, they can severely harm their mental and emotional health and physical well-being.”

A human rights approach is required

Countering such abuse requires strategies based on human rights, says Cannataci. The digital space can have many benefits to children’s development particularly for exploring creativity and self-expression. At the same time, he says that children must be able to enjoy their rights to unhindered development of personality without being impaired by commercial practices.

The expert highlights childrens’ right to education on healthy sexual relationships, consent, and safe practices which can help children protect and advance their privacy, autonomy, and facilitate wellbeing, particularly for LGBTQI youth.

Cannataci urges governments, companies, communities, individuals and parents to recognise children as individuals and therefore the bearers of rights and freedoms. In order to maximise the positive aspects of the digital sphere, while at the same time addressing abuse, says Cannataci, human rights approaches must be used. It is also important to actively involve children in conversations about these approaches, as well as families, communities, governments, civil society and the private sector.

The report also promotes greater attention to privacy engineering in technologies, and wider ‘digital literacy education’ to enable children and their families to navigate technologies in thoughtful, rights respecting and safe ways.

However, concludes Cannataci, “technical solutions and digital literacy alone are insufficient without rigorous and sustained action by States to address structural inequities and ensure children’s privacy, data protection and safety.”

15 July 2021

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