Children actively use various digital platforms, and commercial actors collect and utilise users’ online data for behavioural profiling and targeted advertisements. A recent study revealed that children refrained from sharing their personal information only on apps and websites they found untrustworthy. However, a great majority of children did not actively limit the data they gave away for commercial profiling.
Researchers from the Department of Social Sciences and Philosophy at the University of Jyväskylä explored how children aged 13 to 16 years in Finland negotiate their online privacy against commercial actors. The data for the study consisted of eight focus group discussions (N = 38) conducted between December 2020 and May 2021 with children in schools across Finland’s capital region.
Several participants evaluated the trustworthiness of apps and websites before sharing their information online. Although some children evaluated apps and websites intuitively, others also described looking for specific signs of suspicious activity, such as many pop-up advertisements on a website. Very few participants reported taking specific steps to counter data collection for commercial profiling.
Privacy notices are difficult to understand
Children responded to the cookie notification in multiple ways. Some children accepted cookies either unthinkingly or to move ahead with their online activities. Many children also reported getting discouraged by the incomprehensible privacy terms and clicking ‘accept all cookies’ even when they wanted to edit them. Only a few reported accepting only mandatory cookies, whenever possible.
Trust also played an important role in children’s online consent decisions, as some participants mentioned they readily accepted cookies on large and well-known companies’ websites. This reflects some misconceptions, because even big companies can use third-party cookies.
“Corporations need to play a more active role in ensuring children’s privacy,” says Doctoral Researcher Sonali Srivastava. “The terms of consent should be expressed in simpler language, and privacy legislation should ensure that corporations uphold children’s trust and do not misuse children’s data.”
Some children reported modulating their scrolling pace or ‘liking’ videos so that apps like Instagram and TikTok would know that they were interested in those things. These actions may help children exert some influence over the content and advertisements they receive online.
However, such actions could also have negative implications, such as unnecessary purchases, as children provide more accurate information for their profiling and help strengthen commercial surveillance.
Targeted information can also limit children’s access to varied viewpoints at a lifestage when they build their identities and make important life choices.
Digital literacy education should be increased quickly
“Our results suggest there is an urgent need to increase children’s digital literacy, especially their knowledge of cookies and commercial profiling,” says Sonali Srivastava. “There is also a need to ensure that privacy education translates to children’s everyday online actions.”
The study was part of the projects DigiConsumers and #Agents – Young People’s Agency in Social Media, funded by the Strategic Research Council and the Academy of Finland.