Key findings for Children's Rights to Data Privacy in the Digital Era

Initial insights from the 'Children's Rights to Data Privacy' project research raises some unexpected issues for policymakers, educators, parents and teenagers. 

Key research findings:

Parents and teenagers had similar concepts of privacy and personal data, although they differed in the value they placed on these.

Both parents and teenagers conceptualised privacy most strongly in interpersonal terms, seeing privacy online as about protecting personal information that could cause relationship conflicts, victimisation and reputation harm. They frequently discouraged children from sharing information that could lead to victimisation (online and offline) by strangers and people from their communities. Teenagers echoed their parents' concerns about protecting information that could lead to their being identified offline, or victims of identity theft and fraud. These issues have reached parents and teenagers through media and education, and so remain top of mind.

In addition to these spatial and physical concepts of privacy, parents were also concerned about personal intimacies being a source of discrimination later in life. They worried that teenagers shared too much about their intimate lives online, and discouraged them from uploading content that might impact their opportunities later in life, such as when applying for a job. Teenagers were, however, actively engaging with privacy settings to control who could access information that they or others uploaded about them. They sought platforms that provided the ability for them to control access.

However, these privacy concerns were based largely around information that parents and teenagers knowingly shared online. They had much less awareness of data that might be obtained through other means such as data traces or inferred data commonly collected by companies and institutions. 

On the whole, parents and teenagers expected that when they shared information with institutions this would be kept secure and confidential and so remained out of the public domain. They did not expect information may be collected other than that which they volunteered, or which related to their transactions with them. They did not perceive institutional data practices to be threatening personal privacy as such data, although potentially sensitive, was expected to remain secure, not be shared, and so could not affect their personal relationships or status.

However, neither parents nor teenagers conceptualised privacy in relation to corporate collection of personal data. They believed data collected by corporations was largely utilitarian and benign, and therefore nonthreatening should it ever be made public. Although aware of targeted advertising based on their web searches, they did not believe companies were interested in personal information beyond their consumer interests, and often saw targeted advertising as convenient. Some parents believed companies did not collect information about their children. 

While there was a general lack of awareness of what and how much data is collected, parents and teenagers regularly questioned how corporates having knowledge about them could harm them. This is because they primarily conceptualised privacy in interpersonal terms, where personal information, in the wrong hands, could result in physical and mental harms, and being discredited online. They could not see how corporate data practices could be harmful, and least of all how this might impact their personal relationships with others.

When confronted with case studies about what apps can collect about you, parents and teenagers were concerned about location tracking, and the potential for unwanted communication and physical contact by others. These responses confirmed that they valued spatial privacy, keeping their personal location and family space protected. While they were shocked at how much companies could glean about their daily activities, they were not necessarily motivated to take action to address corporate surveillance.

Both parents and teenagers did exercise privacy strategies in relation to their personal communications and data uploads online, data which they themselves shared online. They did not, however, currently engage with data protection strategies directed at preventing commercial organisations from tracking them online.