How private is your child’s online persona?

3How similar are your children offline and online?  It’s safe to say your kids are more than their online browsing history, but it can reveal a lot about where to find their online personality – their digital persona. And while the world is in lock-down most children are spending a lot more time online.

Our digital persona can be very useful, it can help us keep in touch with our personal and professional network, share those pre-COVID-19 holiday snaps, or maybe obligingly ‘like’ our noisy neighbours newest post about conceiving their fifth child.

Gen Z were born digital natives, and by the time they reach their teens, their digital persona is likely to be found on a plethora of online platforms including social media, online gaming, music and entertainment streaming accounts, or dating apps on their smart phones. And they start early. Last week a four year old was reported buying nearly $1,000 of food online from Tescos after getting into his mum’s phone.

While children’s use of online platforms, particularly social media, can strengthen their friendships, offer a sense of belonging, and provide access to opportunities such as volunteering in the community – it can have shortcomings – one of which may be a loss of privacy.

The Risks

Some of the online risks to children are well-known; others less so:

Employment

Never doubt that future employers searching social media for information about candidates. What your child’s digital persona looks like at 13, 16, or even 20, could come back to haunt them when they enter the graduate job market.

Bullying

Online bullying, harassment, and worse are ugly risks online, and can have offline consequences. Posting information about a child’s school, soccer team, and birthday party can reveal personal information and may provide material than an online bully can use. It’s worth remembering that photos taken on a smartphone usually include GPS coordinates.

Collection and/or sharing of personal information

Some toys and home devices (like TVs and smart assistants) are always on, always connected to the internet—and always listening.

Children (especially younger children) may not be in a position to understand the risks of online activity. If a mobile game features their favourite TV characters, they probably won’t stop to think about the information the app is collecting about them.

It’s not just what you and your children post—and it’s not their careers and privacy at stake. Posting photos or news about other people’s children can impact on their privacy, without their knowing about it.

What about privacy laws?  

Online privacy is receiving an increasing amount of traction in the world’s media. While privacy legislation such as Australia’s Privacy Act 1988 (Cth) and the EU’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) protect personal information regardless of age, they offer limited specific protections for children especially as they were developed before children were so digitally active.

Other laws may provide some specific protections (for example, Australian law includes an offence for using a carriage service—like the Internet—to menace, harass or cause offence) but it can be difficult for an affected individual to take action to enforce these laws.

The EU General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) widely considered to set the global standard for data protection laws, provides some rights for individuals that may assist. For example, the right to be forgotten which requires organisations to delete information (like social media photos) about individuals on request (in some circumstances). However, the GDPR is itself a child, just shy of its second birthday, and the operation and effectiveness of the right to be forgotten is still being tested. There is also no real equivalent to this right in Australia.

Minimising the Risks

None of this is to say children shouldn’t use the Internet, or that photos of children should never be posted online to share with friends. The digital world offers clear benefits and opportunities for children, but it’s important to understand the risks to provide a safer online experience.

Some useful tips – parent to parent

  • If your child is old enough, try to educate them about online risks and the importance of privacy, so that they can make informed decisions.
  • Create an enquiring approach by encouraging your child to question the current and future impacts of their interactions with the online world, remembering that information shared online can be used in ways we did not expect and cannot control.
  • For younger children, consider the use of parental controls.
  • Look at privacy settings with your child and take an informed approach – think about the settings on your webcams, microphones, online cookies, social media, online games and apps.
  • Think before posting a picture of someone else’s child, and ask them to return the courtesy. Schools, sporting clubs and other activities often ask for parents’ or guardians’ consent before posting photos to their website or social media.

Support is available if you have any concerns.

OAIC children & privacy page – for practical tips

Office of eSafety Commissioner (cyberbullying)

IDCARE for advice and support in relation to compromised identity information of a child

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