Young girl using smartphone at night

February 11, 2020, by Rob Ounsworth

Internet Safety Day: how data literacy can help young people stay safe online

Dr Elvira Perez Vallejos is a psychologist and researcher based at the University of Nottingham’s Institute of Mental Health. Here she explains why it’s essential to place the experiences of young people at heart of legislation designed to keep them safer online.

Navigating through uncertainty

Today is Internet Safety Day, the ideal time to highlight that many children and young people sign up to online services when younger than the minimum age (often 13) requirement of platforms. Parents often wish they had more transparency in their child’s use of technology and struggle with their own unfamiliarity with technology. Given that adult knowledge is often lacking and attitudes are so varied and context specific, how can children be expected to navigate these practices?

Beyond e-safety

Internet safety strategies too often focus on ‘stranger danger’ and threats based on other people rather than platforms or data collection. The UK school curriculum covers online safety in terms of protection against individuals, such as threats of “sexual predation, online bullying and harassment”, but does not cover the use of personal data by corporations and online platforms or how children and young people should protect themselves. They are therefore able to talk about, for example, not sharing their location with others (by changing privacy settings and so on), but do not consider how to protect this data from the platforms themselves.

Regulation and compliance

An amendment to the UK Data Protection Act 2018, championed by 5Rights and led by the Information Commissioners Office (ICO), has resulted on the Age-appropriate design code. The code, which comes into effect by the autumn of 2021, sets out 15 standards to protect children from corporations rather than people. The standards include a code of practice and online services should demonstrate that they comply with the code by, for example, only collecting the minimum amount of personal data needed to provide the service or not disclosing children’s data unless a compelling reason to do so can be shown.

Elvira Perez Vallejos

Discover more about Dr Vallejos’s research and how her work with young people
is informing UK policies on internet safety and data protection

Age-appropriate design code

The code aims to ensure that the digital world keeps developing with young people in mind, and whilst there are other guidelines for the ethical treatment of children online, several recent reports suggest that there is more to be done to ensure an internet fit for children, both in terms of regulation and design.

Report from Royal College of Psychiatrists

A recent report by the Royal College of Psychiatrists, Technology use and the mental health of children and young people, highlights the need to prioritise the strictest enforcement of the age-appropriate design code to services targeting and/or popular among children. This includes that services should by default be set to the highest privacy levels and assume that users need child protection until explicit action is taken to opt out.

Data literacy

As children grow up surrounded by more and more technology, they have to be part of the discussions around online data protection. Their education has to shift to more media literacy awareness across all school stages that go beyond e-safety. It is important to address potential psychological harms, create insight and awareness of personal engagement with technologies and encourage agency. Data literacy awareness is crucial, not only for children and young people at all stages but, for teachers and parents to promote children’s digital rights around the dramatic increase in the extend of personal data collection by online companies and its impact on personalised content and consequent over engagement.


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