We teach children not to trust strangers in public. But far too often, parents themselves give strangers access to their children’s lives over the internet.
Kids born today will have the largest digital footprint in history. In fact, some are “datafied” even before birth, as parents upload sonogram scans to the internet and marketers relentlessly track pregnant women. It’s hard to say exactly what effect this will have on individuals in the future, but when parents and caregivers log milestones in apps, track their children’s movements, and broadcast their lives in social media, their digital identity becomes a goldmine of information.
A 2018 report by the Children’s Commissioner for England, “Who knows what about me?”, found that the average person in the United Kingdom will have 70,000 posts shared about them online by the time they turn 18. Highlighting the risk of this, Barclays Bank forecasts that “sharenting” (meaning parents who share info about their children) will be the cause of two-thirds of identity fraud and financial scams facing young people by the end of 2030.
Children themselves are growing up to discover information about themselves online they wish could be erased. From the Austrian teen who sued her parents for posting hundreds of photos of her with their 700 social media contacts (including of her using the bathroom) to the fourth grader who asked her columnist mother to stop sharing private stories and photos.
“Teens get a lot of warnings that we aren’t mature enough to understand that everything we post online is permanent, but parents should also reflect about their use of social media and how it could potentially impact their children’s lives as we become young adults,” wrote one 14-year old girl in the United States who said she would quit social media, after feeling embarrassed and betrayed by what her mother and sister had posted online about her since she was born.
The United Nations has called for “strong guidelines” to protect children’s privacy. In France and Italy courts have sided with the child over the parent when intimate details are made public without a child’s consent. What else can be done?
Governments can set limits for what kind of data collection and marketing to children is acceptable. In Europe, for instance, the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) now imposes stricter rules on how children’s data can be collected and processed.
Schools can help teach students and their families how to navigate a digital world with privacy intact. App developers and internet platforms can create understandable privacy guidelines so parents (and children themselves) can assess the tradeoffs of using online services and games.
Caregivers can be mindful of what internet-enabled devices and toys they bring into children’s lives. Some of them listen in on conversations and capture data in pernicious ways.
Perhaps the simplest of all? Think hard before you post anything about children online. Is this something their future friends or employers might see? A healthy internet is one where we feel comfortable with the information shared about ourselves and our families, whether we are children or adults.