In the early days of the internet, most users used to feel protected and anonymised behind their screens. But ever since companies operating online platforms began collecting ever-more extensive amounts of personal information about their users, the stakes associated with the protection of digital identity are tremendously higher. This is the case in particular for today's children and young people – for a quarter of them, their digital footprints begin before they are even born, with their parents sharing ultrasound images online, as reported by The Atlantic.
It is undeniable that big data is improving the daily lives of many people, and that it will continue to do so in the near future. Yet, the accumulation of gigantic amounts of personal information about each and every one of us – even those who may choose to stay away from online platforms – also raises serious safety concerns, such as damaged online reputation, identity theft, blackmail and extortion, aggressive online advertising, stalking, spear phishing – to quote but a few.
It is therefore crucial that all stakeholders play their part to ensure we make the best of the era of big data. This can only be achieved through a multi-stakeholder effort, aiming to increase awareness of the topic of digital identity and to put in place an adequate framework to protect children and young people's identity on the internet.
Advice for parents and carers
Many parents and carers share their children's successes, mischiefs and cute moments on their social networks, assuming that proudly boasting about their children online every once in a while is rather harmless. Yet, children rarely consent to their parents sharing personal information about them on the internet – some are even too young to be aware of it. This can cause future resentments, but beyond that, it also exposes children to increased privacy threats. According to a study carried out in the US and publicised by The New Yorker, by 2030, sharenting will account for two thirds of cases of identity theft.
Apart from re-thinking the way they share information about their children online, parents and carers can also take a variety of measures to protect their digital identity. One of these is educating children to online identity and privacy and the risks associated, strong passwords, oversharing on social media, suspicious emails, and so on. This should go hand in hand with engaging in meaningful dialogues with children about their boundaries online, setting rules in accordance with them: what can they share? Who can they talk to? Which platforms can they use? On this last point, it is extremely important that parents and carers review the data protection policies and adjust the privacy settings of the apps and platforms their children use and update them frequently.
For further guidance, parents and carers can consult the following Safer Internet Day resources:
- The online modules of SafelyOnline.eu, offered by the Belgian Safer Internet Centre (SIC) and Gezinsbond – especially those focusing on "Internet and privacy"
- An overview of parental controls and filtering solutions provided by the Romanian SIC
- What to do if images of my child are shared online? – an explainer video for parents, produced by the Irish SIC
- All these resources – and more – are available in the Safer Internet Day gallery of educational resources, which features materials for children of all ages, in a wide range of European languages.
Advice for teachers and educators
We cannot ensure that all families will have the reflex to make their children aware of the potential concerns linked with privacy and identity online, and to teach best practices in that regard. That is why teachers, educators and social workers play a key role in ensuring that as many children as possible receive an appropriate education on the topic. Beyond that, schools should also reflect on how their policies might impact their pupils' digital identity (such as the practice of keeping a blog with pictures taken in class for parents to see) and take appropriate measures to ensure their right to privacy is being respected and protected.
For further guidance, teachers and educators can consult the following Safer Internet Day resources:
- The Digital footprint MOOC created by the Czech SIC, an interactive massive open online course (MOOC) on online privacy, personal data abuse, and other associated phenomena.
- My connected life and me by the French SIC, a lesson plan on digital identity for teachers working with children of various ages.
- Learning suggestion for personal data an digital identity from the Cypriot SIC, a lesson plan for students aged 10-12, on digital footprint, data protection and privacy.
All these resources – and more – are available in the Safer Internet Day gallery of educational resources, which features materials for children of all ages, in a wide range of European languages.
Recommendations for wider stakeholders – industry representatives and decision makers
In November 2019, the Convention on the Rights of the Child turned 30. On this occasion, Henrietta H. Fore, Executive Director of UNICEF, addressed an open letter to the children of the world, in which, among the eight reasons why she is worried about their future, she lists digital footprint protection, saying that "the era of the so-called ‘big data' (…) has potential negative impacts on their safety, privacy, autonomy and future life choices." This goes to show how children's data and identity protection online has become a societal concern of utmost importance.
Decision makers around the world have a responsibility to ensure that robust legal frameworks are in place to protect minors' privacy online, to enable proper education to digital rights for children and young people in schools and to organise public awareness campaigns on the importance of children's online privacy, and to hold companies operating online platforms accountable for the way they collect and handle their users' personal data, especially the underage ones.
Simultaneously, tech companies should purely and simply limit the personal data they collect about children, and develop more privacy-by-design products. Tech companies cannot rely on an approach based on asking the child's (or the parents') consent for their data to be collected, when their terms and conditions are very often undecipherable to most users. As Henrietta H. Fore put it in her open letter, "privacy terms and conditions on social media platforms are often barely understood by highly educated adults, let alone children. An analysis from The New York Times, showed that many social media privacy policies require a reading comprehension level that exceeds that of the average college student, meaning many users, especially the very young, are probably consenting to things they can't fully understand."
We invite you all to join the movement and play your part for a better internet, on the next edition of Safer Internet Day on Tuesday, 11 February 2020.
Find further information on www.saferinternetday.org, a global online community platform where countries and international organisations showcase the events and the actions they will conduct locally, nationally and internationally for Safer Internet Day.