World Children’s Day is celebrated every year on 20 November since 1954 when the United Nations created Universal Children’s Day. It aims to promote international togetherness and improve children’s welfare. It also marks the anniversary of the date in 1990 that the UN General Assembly adopted both the Declaration and the Convention on Children’s rights. Bailiwick Data Protection Commissioner, Emma Martins takes the opportunity to explore how protecting children’s data in an increasingly digital world is fundamental to respecting and protecting the rights of children around the world.
Guernsey’s Data Protection Law gives us, at the ODPA, very specific legal responsibilities. One of these responsibilities is to “promote public awareness of risks, rules, safeguards and rights in relation to processing (of personal data), especially in relation to children.”
So, whilst dealing with complaints and handling investigations is always going to be a key part of our work, we also need to consider how best to fulfil our duties around education and awareness.
Engaging people in issues around the protection of personal data is not always easy. The challenge is much greater when we look at how to engage children and young people.
I remember not too long-ago hearing advice for parents, in the context of online safety, to ensure that computers were in family rooms and not to leave children unsupervised whilst online. In a world where even toddlers are often seen with smart devices, this may well prompt a wry smile. How quickly technology advances. How quickly advice becomes out of date.
And dishing out advice and information which is irrelevant and meaningless is, I would suggest, as bad as not dishing out any advice and information at all. I am sure we all remember being children ourselves and hearing some well-meaning adult talk at us about the dangers of this or that. Most of the time it went straight over our heads. But we do need to be clear, the risks that young people face in the online world are real. According to the Centre for Humane Technology’s Ledger of Harms
- Children who have been cyberbullied are 3x more likely to contemplate suicide compared to their peers. The experience of being bullied online is significantly more harrowing than "traditional bullying", potentially due to the victim’s awareness that this is taking place in front of a much larger public audience.
- 1 in 4 children surveyed have had online sexual encounters with adults via social media. Nearly 1 in 3 teen girls have been approached by adults asking for nudes, while 1 in 6 girls aged 9 -12 years have interacted sexually with an adult on these platforms. Overall, 1 in 2 participants (48%) said they had been made to feel uncomfortable, been bullied, or had a sexual interaction online.
- In 55% of cases where children reported or blocked aggressors, the perpetrators quickly found them again either by creating a new account on the same platform or via a different platform.
- Pre-schoolers who use screen-based media for more than 1 hour each day have been shown to have significantly less development in core brain regions involved in language and literacy. Brain scans indicate that the more time spent on screens, the lower the child's language skills, and the less structural integrity in key brain areas responsible for language.
Living in a connected world comes with many advantages but it also presents many and varied harms for children and young people. This should be a wake-up call for us all as the online world moves towards increasingly immersive experiences (such as augmented reality and virtual reality) that are hugely enticing and children here, in the Bailiwick, are exposed to worlds way beyond our own geographical borders.
You may have heard the term ‘metaverse’ a lot lately. References to it seem to be everywhere. As any form of virtual reality is likely to involve significant amounts of personal data, I thought I should do some more research into this ‘next big thing’ I keep hearing about.
But when I started to look into it more, I was struck by one thing I kept hearing over and over again from experts – the metaverse is already here. Anyone playing games such as Minecraft, Roblox or Fortnite is already experiencing a corner of the metaverse world. This sense I had that I was ‘horizon scanning’ was misplaced and naive. Millions of people, many of them children, are already communicating and gaming in this connected virtual world.
So, time is not on our side. Too often the technology races ahead at breakneck speed and in the excitement (because let’s be honest, technological innovations are exciting) we often forget to hit the pause button, even briefly. And that pause button is critical. It ensures the direction of travel is headed to the right place. It allows us to think long and hard about unintended consequences and harm reduction. It allows us to make sure that there are conversations about what humans want, not simply what technology can do.
If indeed we are building a new virtual world in which we will increasingly work and play, the time to build a world that reflects our values and protects us all (especially the most vulnerable), is when the first bricks are laid.
Bricks in a virtual world may be made of pixels, but the impact that the finished product will have on our lives and our children’s lives is real.
There are things we can do at the ODPA to help everyone better understand the digital world we find ourselves in – to harness the opportunities and mitigate against the risks. (Children and Young People · ODPA
). We take that responsibility seriously but also recognise that we cannot do it alone.
Protecting children and young people from harms that they may not be aware of, or understand, is a job for parents and carers, schools, governments, regulators and more. Parents and carers need information, support and help in this ever-evolving landscape. Government need to understand and respond to current and emerging risks, and regulators need to deliver on their duties to educate and to enforce. If they work in isolation, these groups are never going to make much difference, but if they work together, real change can happen. We must not allow our most vulnerable to navigate this brave new world alone. This must be a community endeavour.
Imagine you are walking down the High Street one lunchtime and you see a young unaccompanied child ahead of you. That child is surrounded by strangers who are asking them "How old are you? Where do you live? Do you want to come to my house? Can you send me a photo of you?"
Would you walk by?
Bailiwick Data Protection Commissioner Emma Martins is a panellist at PrivSec Global’s online round-table discussion about children's privacy, on 30 November 2022 at 14:00.