• Opinion
  • August 3, 2018
  • 9 minutes
  • 1

Kids are growing up online — we need to redesign the digital world for them

Opinion: A child is a child until they reach maturity, not until they reach for their smartphone

This opinion piece was written by Baroness Kidron. She is a crossbench peer in the House of Lords, chair of the 5Rights Foundation and recently introduced the Age-Appropriate Design Code into the UK’s Data Protection Act 2018.


Many of those credited with “creating” the internet, each in slightly different language, have expressed the founding vision of digital technology as a force for democracy, that would banish gatekeepers and treat all users equally. But this is a category error. If you treat all users equally, then de facto you treat a child as an adult. And a child is a child until they reach maturity, not until they reach for their smartphone. Which is why we need a new approach to digital policy…

My interest in children and digital policy began with a film. It was 2012: smartphones had just reached the price point that parents were willing to buy them for teenagers. Children suddenly got quieter; what was available through their phones was more engaging than what was in the room.

Having been a filmmaker for more than three decades, my response – naturally — was to make a film. Making InRealLife took me from the bedrooms of English teenagers to Silicon Valley. As I began to understand the history of these technologies and how they were intersecting with the young, preoccupation with outcomes for individual teens was superseded by a realisation that the digital environment had never been imagined with children in mind.

“The digital environment had never been imagined with children in mind”

The problems that were beginning to emerge from children’s online use were a direct result of the fact that children were spending an ever-increasing amount of time in an immersive environment in which the concept of childhood does not even exist.

A digital environment fit for childhood

Over the last six years, I have been making the case that the digital environment must be redesigned for the presence, needs and rights of children: it must become fit for childhood.

That means more than the popular notions of online safety and digital literacy. In a time of an exponential rise of device use among the very young, what is required is systemic redesign of a sector that ignores the needs and rights of children, in pursuit of profit and growth.

A good place to start is with data — the fuel and value of the sector. A child’s data goes beyond the obvious (name, birthday, address) and paints a deep picture of who they are and what they do. It includes their tastes, friendships, race, sexuality, daily habits, education, health records and whether they are awake or asleep. More than a parent could know about their child. Often more than the child knows, or understands, about themself.

In the recent 5Rights Foundation report, Disrupted Childhood: the Cost of Persuasive Design, we explored how online companies that offer products for “free” in reality exchange their services in return for personal data. They use a range of hooks, rewards and persuasive designs, wittingly exploiting the human instinct to react.

“Being hooked up to devices has an overwhelming impact on children’s anxiety levels, relationships, success and sleep”

Deliberately habit-forming, these online services claim a child’s time and attention, affecting emotional, physical and educational development. Being hooked up to devices has an overwhelming impact on children’s anxiety levels, relationships, success at school, reputations and sleep. Habits formed before the age of nine require considerable intervention to undo.

Room for hope: codifying child rights

In the UK, there is some hope. Persuasive design will be now considered by the data regulator as she introduces the Age-Appropriate Design Code as part of the UK’s Data Protection Act 2018.

The Code offers a new way of considering children online.

It invokes the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child to make clear that a child online is anyone under age 18 (under current rules, which follow the US, often only under-13s are considered children).

It compels online services to consider the capacity of children in five different age and developmental ranges.

Perhaps most crucially, it redefines our concerns about children’s digital life by looking at design of default privacy settings, use of geolocation data, sharing and selling of data, paid-for content, T&Cs and privacy notices, reporting standards, enactment of data rights and access to specialist advice and advocates.

Recognising that a 21st century child grows up seamlessly on- and off-line, this is a powerful opportunity to reassess what children need to protect and support them on their journey to adulthood.

It is also an opportunity to retrofit the rights of children for privacy and autonomy onto the digital environment. In a blog launching a call for evidence, the UK’s Information Commissioner Elizabeth Denham said: “We’re producing the Age-Appropriate Design Code to let those who design the online services that children use know what we expect from them.”

What’s needed

Here are just three of many questions new legislation everywhere, including the UK’s Code, should answer.

Given that 95% of all users never change from default settings, should services be mandated to set default high for children? This would reverse current industry norms that set the lowest bar of privacy as the default.

Since an online service determines their own terms of use (including community rules and privacy notices), should these terms be put on a statutory footing? This would require companies to live up to their own standards — of age, consent, privacy, user behaviour etc.

“The thing it might break is a child, under 18”

And should organisations be required to undertake a child data impact assessment before rolling out an online service? A move-fast-and-break-things Silicon Valley culture would then need to consider that the thing it might break is a child, under 18.

A global movement

Data is the means by which the tech sector engages with children, and data protection is the tool by which policymakers can redress an asymmetry of power. The UK’s Code has attracted attention of regulators and policymakers across the world: a third of all online users worldwide are children, and that is only growing.

Even new and improved, the digital environment will inevitably remain complex and flawed. But new legislation, like the Age-Appropriate Design Code, can challenge the tech sector’s lack of regard for the status of children, which reverses over 150 years of hard-won struggles to define and protect childhood. It will make companies conscious that in taking children’s data, they have in their hands the makings of something that society deems precious — a child. — Baroness Kidron

Find more information on the Age-Appropriate Design Code and respond to the ICO’s call for evidence here.

(Picture credit: Flickr/Dejan Krsmanovic)

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