How can we protect children in the digital age?

protect children, digital age

Here, Claire Quinn, VP of Compliance & DPO, CIPP/e at PRIVO, discusses the challenges of how to protect children in the digital age

Today’s children are permanently switched on, for them there is no distinction between the online and offline world. They are learning and exploring. Many children are super smart when it comes to technology, often more so than parents. However, they are not emotionally or intellectually ready to handle the less positive aspects. Today it’s not just a case of protecting children from the dark dangers of pornography or bullying which are bad enough, there are other insidious online harms they encounter that go unseen.

Social media platforms

The tech giants and social platforms have built entire business models on exploiting data, they have reached levels of sophistication that sends shivers down the spines of those who understand the implications. Entire research departments devote resource to studying use of the social media, building profiles of what users like and understanding not only their habits but their moods. Content delivered to users is skewed based on these profiles and decisions are made about them. These profiles travel the digital world shaping experiences and in part behaviours, from an early age.

The social platforms are deliberately built to be compulsive; more time spent more ad revenue made. Take the “Like” button as a point in case, it has had a dramatic impact on children’s self-esteem. Facebook and Instagram have been trialling removal of Likes due to the anxiety they cause. When a user receives a Like they get a hit of dopamine to the brain, according to Harvard University research. One of the founders of Facebook, Sean Parker has spoken openly about the exploitation of human psychology and the dopamine hit since quitting the tech giant.  Not getting a Like is like not being invited to the party a hundred times over, remember how bad that can feel?

Ofcom’s, the UK regulator for communication services, latest report states that parents are more concerned than ever that their children’s online use carries more risks than benefits at a time when the research shows more children using social media platforms not meant for them. Smarter age gates and robust methods of blocking children are a must but why not provide an alternative, privacy enhanced experience?

There is a constant pressure for children to live the perfect lives others pretend to have on social media that wasn’t built with them in mind and to deal with harmful content at too young an age. We only need to look at the Molly Russell case in the UK to understand this. Molly took her own life in 2017, her father partly blamed Instagram for her death.

Sleep disorders

Compulsive use of devices is also harmful to sleep. The UK’s Guardian newspaper recently analysed data from National Health Service Digital and found thousands of children and teens being admitted to hospital for sleep disorders. Experts named excessive use of screens before bed, as one of the causes. The mental health of a generation has been put at risk.

Opportunities and benefits

On the other hand, the digital world brings a wealth of benefits to children. It opens a world of opportunity. Children have rights and should be able to access content and services in a safe, responsible and privacy enhanced way without being exploited. Building trust and proving integrity will help keep the user long into the future, a business benefit in itself.

So how do we tackle this? Simply put there is no one answer. The situation calls for a combination of measures involving parents, education, regulations and industry wide solutions to engage responsibly or block children.

Child safety online

Sonia Livingstone, Professor of at the London School of Economics (LSE) has conducted extensive research into child safety online and recognises the need for education from an early age both in the classroom and for parents. Rather than just looking at safety there needs to be an acknowledge of the central role of the digital world in family lives. It’s clear that banning children from screens is counterproductive. They have a right to participate and engage. Parents need to understand what their children do online and embrace it. Having open discussions around what is acceptable and what isn’t. When we send our children out into the world and tell them to act appropriately, don’t talk to strangers and be kind to others, they need to know the same rules apply in the digital world.


Regulations need to support children and their parents to ensure that services take account of them not just turn a blind eye to their presence. The US Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA) has been helping protect children for over 20 years. The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) is currently reviewing the Rule in the context of digital developments and the changing privacy landscape. The UK Information Commissioner’s Office’s Age Appropriate Design Code will come into force next year. This really gets to the heart of the matter requiring privacy by design and default out of the gate to support children to have an appropriate experience. There will be tough penalties for services that fail to comply. The rolling out of Codes such as these is included in the EU General Data Protection Regulation and the Irish Data Protection Commission is working on its version. The European Data Protection Board will release guidance on protecting children’s privacy in the coming months and the UK Online Harms Bill is the subject of much debate.

Industry, advocacy groups, parents and regulators need to work together to bring a combination of education, regulation and tools that are both meaningful and enforceable to allow the next generation of children to grow up in a better digital world.

Allowing them to benefit from all the positives of new technology while protecting their privacy and safety must be top of the agenda.


PRIVO is the leading global industry expert in children’s online privacy and a recognised authority in the minors’ digital identity and consent management marketplace ensuring minors’ privacy while advancing a robust, global digital ecosystem. As an FTC approved COPPA Safe Harbor since 2004, certifying hundreds of apps, sites and games that are top performing and well-known kid brands, PRIVO has been developing privacy solutions to empower positive, transparent and secure online relationships between companies, families and schools. PRIVO’s signature Kids Privacy Assured Program helps companies navigate the online privacy landscape from COPPA, GDPR to the numerous student digital privacy laws in addition to offering compliant technology solutions that include youth registration, age verification, parental consent and account management.


Please note: This is a commercial profile

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VP of Compliance & DPO, CIPP/e
Privacy Vaults Online, Inc. (PRIVO)
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