Children’s data – everyone has an opinion.

By Darragh McCashin
Wednesday, 20th February 2019
Filed under: ESRBlog

Children’s data – everyone has an opinion, but what does the research say? A brief report from Professor Sonia Livingstone’s public lecture

On February 19th 2019, I had the pleasure of attending Professor Sonia Livingstone’s public lecture in Trinity College Dublin, hosted by the Psychological Society of Ireland (PSI). Titled ‘Children’s personal data and privacy online: it’s neither personal nor private’, Prof Livingstone – a long-standing intellectual heroine of mine – outlined the complex story that media headlines rarely reflect when discussing children’s digital lives.

(Photo credit: Mark Smyth, President Elect of Psychological Society of Ireland – Twitter: @psychpolis)

Working within the TEAM project has exposed me to all manner of intersecting issues relating to children and digital technologies: screen time politics, ethics of consent and assent both on- and off-line, effectiveness of digital mental health interventions or lack thereof, commercial versus non-profit interests, and so on. While these issues are certainly present for all age groups, what differentiate children from other groups are the challenges brought about by their developmental needs across the formative years. Indeed, Prof Livingstone weaved together what are the basics of developmental psychology with the complex socio-legal world of data in the now (supposedly) GDPR-compliant European Union (EU) environment. Prof Livingstone outlined the pressing questions relating to the digital lives of children: what of their capacity to act, the responsibilities of others, such that their rights are fulfilled and not undermined?

The answer to the above question is not appropriately or ethically answered with simplistic narratives that assert technology as inherently ‘bad’, ‘harmful’, ‘addictive’ or ‘dangerous’; nor is it answered by asserting technology as ‘good’, ‘harmless’, or ‘safe’. Instead, we must encourage a publicly accessible discourse that allows for nuance. Prof Livingstone used a helpful example to consider some of the main issues pertaining to children’s rights regarding the hotly debated topic of privacy. Consider cyberbullying, a phenomenon that incorporates interpersonal privacy (interactions between a victim and perpetrator of bullying online), institutional privacy (said interactions communicating the institutional membership of young people, i.e., the school yard), and commercial privacy (said interactions likely owned or controlled by a big technology company). Citing her recent evidence review (with colleagues Stoilova and Nandagiri), Prof Livingstone demonstrated that the privacy trio of interpersonal-institutional-commercial realms necessitate different responses for each of the developmental stages of young people – why would we treat a 7 year old the same as a 17 year old when it comes to responding to bullying on, for example, Instagram? Prof Livingstone and colleagues’ research found that children think interpersonally, but not institutionally or commercially – they recognise that, when they think about digital behaviour, their data is neither personal nor private. Psychologists will acknowledge the vastly different moral, emotional, and cognitive characteristics of children across developmental stages, potentially further differentiated across genders and socio-economic characteristics also. So what do we do?

Surprise, surprise, actually asking children about these issues – as has been the case with recent UK consultations – elicits rich information that should guide stakeholders. However, Prof Livingstone reminded us that there is significant variation across countries and companies when it comes to recognising that children’s rights need fulfilment, and not undermining in the pursuit of commercial or political advancement. To that end, a key recommendation offered by Prof Livingstone was privacy-by-design, as technologies, norms, legislation, and moral panics continue to develop apace.

The lesson for the public is the same as for researchers: beware reductionist narratives of good-versus-evil in our digital world, promote and apply evidence-based approaches to these issues, acknowledge vulnerable groups, and sustain literacy education from an early age. Reflecting on this public lecture, it’s clear that Prof Livingstone’s research embodies the sought-after balance between theory, mixed methods evidence-building, actionable policy recommendations, and genuine impact.

I would encourage all those interested in learning more to explore about these topics to check out the diverse range of TEAM projects looking at technology-enabled mental health for young people, in addition to the resourceful website of Prof Sonia Livingstone.

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