Digital Parenting: Navigating the Privacy Minefield to Protect Children Online

Children are at the most risk having their privacy compromised online, but are too naive to understand.

With the rise of big data in the past few decades, there have been significant concerns around the privacy and security of people’s personal data. Particularly alarming is the practice of Data Surveillance ‘Dataveillance’, which involves monitoring people’s online activities (Flew, 2018). This isn’t just about watching one person – it’s about keeping track of everyone using their online information. This is raising serious concerns in recent years about people’s privacy and security on the internet (Flew, 2018).

Children are particularly vulnerable when it comes to the processing of their personal information and are particularly susceptible to having their privacy compromised online. Their limited understanding of online privacy, coupled with naivety about the risks associated with sharing personal information, makes them easy targets for exploitation. Additionally, lack of supervision while engaging with digital platforms can expose children to harmful content or interactions with strangers (Ivanova, 2023). Targeted advertising further exacerbates the situation by exploiting children’s preferences and behaviours to collect their personal data without their consent (Grant and Singer, 2023).

“The definition of privacy has changed. Kids are more comfortable baring their souls online, but they don’t think about the consequences or permanence of the internet.” – Elisabeth Wilkins

Current laws around the world are starting to seem insufficient to protect children’s privacy in an increasingly digital world where children are rapidly being exposed to digital devices and online materials from an early age. In the US, although the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act of 1998 (COPPA) imposes a set of specific requirements on certain websites, these requirements have struggled to keep pace with the rapid development of social media and internet culture since the turn of the century (Hackely, 2023).

Regulations established under COPPA are also limited in that they only cover websites and online services aimed at children under 13 or those knowingly gathering data from such children. This exclusion leaves older children and teenagers without protections, despite being potentially at higher risk of data exploitation due to the increased internet usage by this demographic (Hackley, 2023).

As a result, in 2023, various groups of US lawmakers have initiated efforts to pass new legislations aimed at safeguarding children’s data online. With widespread public backing for stronger protection of children’s interests on the internet, lawmakers have introduced a duo of bipartisan bills. The first bill, named the Children and Teens’ Online Privacy Protection Act, is to broaden the existing protections under COPPA to encompass all children up to the age of 16. Additionally, the bill proposes the establishment of an online “eraser button” rule, mandating companies to provide users with the option to delete personal information collected from children and teenagers (Hackley, 2023).

The second bill, the Kids Online Safety Act (KOSA), would mandate website operators to implement measures to safeguard children’s data and develop new tools for parents to oversee their children’s online activities. Additionally, the bill would require the disclosure of datasets and “black box algorithms” to facilitate research on the online safety and welfare of minors (Hackley, 2023).

In December 2023, the US Federal Trade Commission also suggested amendments to COPPA, proposing significant alterations to safeguard children’s online privacy. These proposed amendments would seek to regulate how digital services utilise and profit from children’s data, prevent shifting responsibilities onto parents, limit push notifications, and would require targeted advertising to be off by default. Additionally, they suggest restrictions on retaining collected information and surveillance in schools.

Another US law proposed in April 2023 named ‘Protecting Kids on Social Media Act’ was geared towards protecting children from aspects of social media lawmakers say are contributing to the mental health crisis impacting youth. This bill proposes several measures to enhance online safety for minors. It sets the minimum age for social media users at 13, with parental consent required for teens aged 13 to 18. According to the bill, platforms would be banned from using algorithms to recommend content to these young users. Adults would have to create an account for their teens, providing a valid form of ID to become users on a platform. The bill suggests that children under 13 will still be allowed to view content on social media sites as long as it doesn’t require them to log in to do so (Jones, 2023).

Microsoft fined $20 million for violating children’s privacy

In June 2023, Microsoft was fined $20 million by the US Federal Trade Commission (FTC) for violating the U.S. Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA) by illegally collecting and retaining the data of children who signed up to use its Xbox video game console. From 2015 to 2020, Microsoft retained the data that it collected from children during the account creation process, even when a parent failed to complete the process (Singh, 2023). As the result of these violations, Microsoft has been directed by the FTC to enhance their privacy safeguards for children using its Xbox system. According to the FTC, this will entail extending COPPA protections to third-party gaming publishers who receive children’s data from Microsoft (Singh, 2023).

This incident highlights the ongoing challenges and importance of digital privacy protection, particularly for children. It underscores how digital platforms must prioritise safeguarding user data, especially when it involves vulnerable populations like children and minors. Microsoft’s violation of COPPA demonstrates the need for stricter enforcement of regulations and the necessity for companies to adhere to them diligently.

When it comes to children’s rights, there is a challenging situation navigating between potentially conflicting rights (Livingstone, 2017). The articles of the Convention on the Rights of the Children (CRC) are categorised into 3 Ps- Protection, Provision, and Participation. Protection rights focus on safeguarding children from various threats, especially in the digital realm where issues like sexual exploitation, exposure to harmful content, and privacy concerns are prevalent. Provision rights ensure children have access to resources for their survival and development, including educational tools and cultural representation online. Participation rights empower children to engage in processes that affect them, such as peer networking and advocacy initiatives.

This results in a challenge to balance competing rights, particularly between protection and participation. But as of yet, no robust way has been found to deal with the common clash of competing rights – most often between rights to protection and participation (Livingstone, 2017).

The Other Side of the Concern

On the other side of children’s digital privacy concerns is the issue of parents sharing their kids lives on the internet publicly. This is famously termed in social media as ‘Sharenting’ (Esfandiari & Yao, 2023). When parents share images of their children on social media platforms, they typically do so with good intentions. For instance, they may want to update their extended family about their family’s activities or document significant events in their children’s lives. However, the children may face many risks as a consequence of this (Minkus, Liu & Ross, 2015).

A major threat to children as a result of ‘Sharenting’ is that strangers can learn important details about the child, like their name and birthday, which could be used by criminals or predators. Secondly, even if parents have privacy settings, their friends or friends-of-friends could still see the posts, increasing the risk of overexposure to people who may not have good intentions. Thirdly, data brokers collect and sell information about people, including children, to advertisers and other parties, which can lead to privacy concerns and targeted marketing. Lastly, posting on social media exposes children to surveillance by the platform and potentially other organisations, which could impact their digital privacy in the future (Minkus, Liu & Ross, 2015).

‘Sharenting’ in some cases happens more voluntarily from the parents than others. While many parents just mean to share their children’s photos and videos with their friends and family, its not uncommon to see some parents making a living and a career out of sharing their children’s lives with the public. With the rise of bloggers, vloggers and social media influencers, we often see children’s privacy being violated in the internet.

The Cost of ‘Sharenting’

The cost of ‘Sharenting’ is almost always paid by the kids when they grow up. Sometimes, parents don’t realise how others might see the things they share online, like personally identifiable information, embarrassing stories or inappropriate pictures of their children. Plus, they never know where this content might end up in the future (Brosch, 2016). When the kids grow up and realise that their whole life has been visible for the world to see, and the world perceives them in a way different to what they want to be seen as, the real problems start to appear.

US resident Cam Barrett grew up in front of a social media audience as her mother documented her childhood and adolescence on Facebook without her consent. She is among the first generation of children whose parents shared the private moments of their lives on the internet. Now at the age of 25, Barrett is using social media to advocate against child exploitation online. She says her childhood exposure to unwanted attention on social media from an early age has left her with bad anxiety (Armont, 2024).

“At 12, I received a DM from a man whom I didn’t know, who saw me riding my bike and told me he followed me home.” – Cam Barrett

Parents who actively choose not to share their children’s face and identity on social media or the internet say that for them, it comes down to consent. Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett says thats she’d like her son to negotiate his digital footprint on his terms, but she understand and respects that other parents feel differently, and also wonders if the children without any digital footprint might wonder why, or feel left out (Cosslett, 2023)

In the context of Australia, the Australian Federal Police has advised parents to think twice and do a privacy checkup before posting back to school photos online. AFP commander Helen Schneider, at the beginning of the school year in 2024, released a warning to the Australian public saying that the police have seen instances of otherwise innocent images being used in child exploitation material or offenders using information from photos, such as school uniforms, to identify and groom children (AFP, 2024).

As part of the privacy checkup, parents were suggested by the AFP Commander to take certain precautions. First, they were asked to check and adjust their privacy settings on social media platforms to ensure their accounts are set to private or “friends only.” When someone else is taking photos of their child, the Commander suggested parents should have a conversation about how the photos will be used and shared. Additionally, the Commander shared that parents should be mindful of the background in photos to avoid revealing their address or location, and refrain from posting their location or “checking in” to places. AFP warned parents to also conceal any logos on their child’s uniform, and keep personal information such as their full name and age private (AFP, 2024).

As per GDPR guidelines, it’s recommended to avoid sharing children’s data unless it’s absolutely necessary, such as when it’s crucial for their safety and protection. Ideally, children’s information should only be disclosed in situations where it clearly benefits them. In cases where sharing with third parties is unavoidable, it’s important to conduct thorough checks and assessments to ensure that the children’s well-being and interests are carefully considered and safeguarded.

Digital platforms present significant risks to children’s privacy through data collection, inadequate parental controls, online tracking, and security vulnerabilities. Additionally, when adults share their children’s Personally Identifiable Information on social media, it exposes them to risks from strangers, acquaintances, and surveillance entities (Minkus, Liu & Ross, 2015).

Without proper guidance and safeguards, children are vulnerable to having their privacy compromised online. Better practices for parents as well as digital platforms are needed to make sure our young generation’s privacy and well being is protected online.

Reference List

Armont, R. (2024). Cam’s childhood was turned into social media content. Now, she’s fighting to protect other kids’ right to privacy. SBS Dateline.

Australian Federal Police. (2024). Parents urged to do little homework before posting back-to-school photos online.

Brosch, A. (2016). When the child is born into the Internet: Sharenting as a growing trend among parents on Facebook.

Esfandiari, M., & Yao, J. (2023). Sharenting as a double-edged sword: evidence from Iran. Information, Communication & Society26(15), 2942–2960.

Federal Trade Commission. (2023). FTC proposes strengthening children’s privacy rule to further limit companies’ ability to monetize children’s data.

Flew, T. (2018). Platforms on trial. Intermedia, 46(2), 24-29.

Flew, T. (2021) ‘Issues of Concern’, in Regulating Platforms. Cambridge, UK: Polity, pp. 72–79.

Grant, A., & Singer, C. (2023). YouTube to limit data collection on children’s ads. The New York Times.

GDPR. (n.d.). Article 8: Conditions applicable to child’s consent in relation to information society services.

Ivánova, V. (2021). Internet addiction in children.

Jones, D. (2023). Social media, kids, Senate bill. NPR.

Livingstone, S. (2017). Children’s rights in the digital age. In The Routledge companion to media and human rights (pp. 104-113). Routledge.

Minkus, T., Liu, K., & Ross, K. W. (2015, May). Children seen but not heard: When parents compromise children’s online privacy. In Proceedings of the 24th international conference on World Wide Web (pp. 776-786).

Singh, K. (2023). Microsoft to pay $20 mln to settle charges it collected children’s information. Reuters.

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